Putting People First: A Call to Action for Civil Society

This blog is adapted from remarks given at Civil Society Day at the OGP Global Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia on July 17th, 2018.

At the last Global Civil Society Day in late 2016, we had just woken up to a new dawn in the US and a wave of populism around the world. They were - and remain - challenging times. Migration and inequality, trade wars and real wars, populism and the decline of democracy - these challenges are feeding anxiety and discontent around the world.

Democratically elected demagogues have come to power riding the wave of these anxieties. They appropriate the language and spaces of democracy, promise better lives and bolstered national identities. But what they bring into office is the idea that if you win elections, you have the absolute right to do what you want - for yourself, for your friends - the winner takes all.

In that model, democratic checks and balances can get in the way, so it’s better to slowly – or quickly – erode them. Polarization is part of the playbook, with an “us versus them” attitude. The “us” can unapologetically advance their agenda, and the “them” can get what they want - if they win next time. They probably won’t, because in the meantime, the election rules will have been changed.

This “I win, I decide” approach challenges the established principle that whoever is in power takes on the responsibility to care for all.  It undermines the values of inclusion and diversity, and the belief that a constructive exchange of different perspectives – even uncomfortable or contradicting ones – is healthy and can result in a better understanding and acceptable compromise.

Where there is trust and respect, conflict can be fruitful. In a context of mistrust and fear, critical views can be easily dismissed as not credible, not legitimate, or not loyal.

And that’s where today’s trend touches on the core tenets of OGP. The belief that inclusiveness, dialogue, partnership – although hard – are essential. The belief that actively engaging citizens is needed to bring better government - better society - for all.

Perhaps we should no longer speak of open versus closed government. Instead, we should speak of governments that move towards exclusion and focus on delivering for some versus inclusive governments that focus on delivery for all.

From day one, civil society has been OGP’s primary source of energy and innovation. It has helped shape and deliver the promise of OGP - often, against the odds of political, financial, or civic space.

The latest civil society survey tells us that significant improvements occurred in both process and content of action planning since we last asked our stakeholders in 2015. The rate of action plans matching all civil society asks has more than doubled - while the average number of starred commitments per action plan has increased by 50% Similarly, respondents that judge their level of involvement in action planning to be satisfactory - beyond being informed or just consulted - has risen by over 50%. Those are good results - results that beg a few questions. Are we ambitious enough in our asks? 93% of commitments still do not earn stars, of which the vast majority fall short not due to implementation, rather due to ambition, relevance or specificity. Are we inclusive enough in our conversations? While the number of civil society and government actors involved in OGP steadily increase, we are still not fully representative of women’s, youth or minority issues. Are we playing the roles we need to play? Perhaps most importantly - are we delivering the reforms that are most needed for people?

We ask governments for more transparency, participation, and accountability - but governments are turning it around and challenging us on our own transparency and accountability; on our credibility, representativeness, and legitimacy.

Even though these accusations might be, at times, politically motivated, there probably is some truth to them. If people see progressive idealism as elitism, if they no longer trust institutions, if the “I win I decide” politicians are winning popular votes - what does that tell us?

We are not just the victims of shrinking civic space. We should critically assess our own role in the mess in which we find ourselves, and take responsibility to get us out of here.

The need to examine our own role and legitimacy is not going away. We should charge ahead and improve on our own transparency and accountability to counter  the attacks that take us away from our real work. We must become leaders of excellence for much more direct citizen participation - not because we are being challenged on it, but because there is value in regrounding and reconnecting.

As a thought experiment, what could our role look like five years from now - both inside and outside of OGP?

The basics are easy. Let’s be much more open about who we are, what our agenda is and why, and who runs and funds us. Let’s be domestically accountable and non-partisan.

That covers the “T” and the “A”. The “P” - participation - is more complex.

If the ambition of open government is to bring people back into the heart of government, our ambition should be to support that effort - including by bringing people back into the heart of civil society.   

I see three opportunities.

We should make sure to anchor our agenda in local needs and priorities. We must seek to better understand the root causes of citizen discontent and demonstrate why our work is relevant to people. We have to be able to better explain why our so called ‘elite agenda’ really is a people’s agenda.

We should do much more to enable inclusive citizen action. People want to be heard and involved.  Civil society in OGP has proven to be very good at creating opportunities for citizen engagement and government responsiveness. We can raise our game as brokers of dialogue and action - inside and outside of OGP - and across ideological divides.

We should tap into the energy of citizen movements, and use our skills to turn that energy into long term reform. Citizens in countries like South Korea and Armenia have bravely pushed for change. They are good at creating momentum, channeling frustration, and broadcasting what people don’t want. They ousted politicians from power in Guatemala and South Africa and unmasked corruption in Malaysia and Romania. What they are less good at is the post-revolution phase, turning that short-term energy into long-term change. That is where civil society can come in.

Business as usual for us might mean being out of business soon. The next five years should be years of innovating, facilitating, and advocating for much more direct engagement of people in shaping and strengthening the society they live in. We should be turning protest and anger into participation and action.

We will still have a role to play in providing checks and balances - in being annoying and supportive at the same time, lending a hand, and holding feet to the fire.

The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch - throughout this week,  you will hear about compelling initiatives that you have helped create and results you have helped deliver.  Having good examples is only the first step.

That’s why the question I want to send you home with is this one: how can we reinvent and recharge ourselves to be fit-for-purpose for the future?

Next time we meet, I want us all to be bursting with fresh energy, with new inspiration, and with more legitimacy. We collectively will have invested in inclusion and participation both inside and outside of OGP, making citizen engagement worth the effort for government, for the citizens, and for ourselves.

An open, inclusive, diverse government that delivers on people’s competing priorities through dialogue and compromise will make both governments and civil society more credible.

Authors: Paul Maassen