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Q&A with Rakesh Rajani “Government is Us”

Preguntas y Respuestas con Rakesh Rajani "El gobierno somos nosotros"

OGP Support Unit|

You were very involved in bringing OGP to life. Are you surprised at how it’s developed?

It’s all happened quickly. For several years a motley crew of us worked on the idea of open government, open budgets, open data – but it was often a marginal conversation. Then in 2010 the tide turned, there was international momentum, and we jumped on the opportunity to help promote the idea that became the Open Government Partnership. We hoped that this idea would interest ten or fifteen countries… never had we imagined that in less than five years it would include 69 countries and over 2,500 specific commitments to open up government. Sure, there are many substantive problems in many of these countries and commitments, but it still is a remarkable achievement.

What distinguishes the OGP initiative from traditional approaches to development?

The thinking behind OGP’s creation was that real change doesn’t come from aid or technical reforms; that these things can be useful but are rarely transformative. It came from the basic insight that at the heart of our political, social and economic crisis was that the relationship between people and their governments was broken. That we needed something to help the governments of the world open up to their own citizens. The point of OGP is to transform the relationship between citizens and governments, to restore engagement and responsiveness and accountability, to rebuild trust.

The design of OGP also has several important special features, which reflect the need for a more dynamic 21st century global platform. The OGP includes countries of both the North and the South; it involves government and civil society on an equal basis, including on its highest governance body and co-chairs; it has a model of government and civil society collaboration and negotiating power that’s savvy and powerful; it fosters lateral learning across countries – so that a Sri Lanka can learn from the Philippines on open budgets, and South Africa and UK can work together to open up information on company ownership; and it has an in-built, accountability mechanism in the Independent Reporting Mechanism.

OGP is now almost 5 years old – are you happy with the progress that’s been made so far?

An impressive amount has been achieved, and there is still a long way to travel. A review of the delivery on national action plans suggests some impressive gains, sometimes on issues that had been stuck for decades. But the really important of impact of OGP may be in helping to establish, — in deep, powerful ways in many countries — the idea that governments derive their legitimacy from people. The OGP is helping, slowly, to inculcate the idea that a government worth its salt will be one that will struggle to figure out how it can work better for people. Equally importantly, it is helping many in civil society better understand how participatory and accountable governments are essential to achieving social justice, and that often it will be more helpful to spend efforts and making government better instead of only pointing out its faults. So people need governments and in order to be credible, to be legitimate, governments need people.

Are there any examples that you’ve seen where you thought ‘wow, this thing that we were dreaming about is actually facilitating change’? For instance, in your country Tanzania?

Absolutely. In Tanzania, for decades many of us had been fighting for the government to release information about public matters. If you went to a government office and said, “Can I please have this information?” they would just laugh at you and say “Who are you? Unless you have a letter from somebody important we’re not going to give you the information.” So you would spend huge amounts of energy and time—months, years sometimes—just establishing that this information is due to you.

Today, when you go to request what should be public information, it’s different – officials are less likely to question your right to getting that information. You no longer argue about whether the government should be accountable to people. Instead you argue about how it can be accountable in a more meaningful way.  Several efforts helped make this happen, among which OGP has played a crucial part in bringing government and civil society together. We still do not have this codified in a national law on the right to information – a promise that has not yet been delivered – and that will be needed. But for laws to have effect it helps to change norms too.

Here’s another example, which is more about how data is not only being made available but is actually being used: A few years ago I was part of a study in East Africa that found that kids were in school but not learning. Initially, the governments were very critical of the findings and would not accept the data. Fast forward and the governments have a different response; because they have had to contend with the citizen generated data about children not learning, and come to accept that their policies need change. There is also a growing culture of having data – generated by citizens or independent credible bodies – needing to be yardstick of progress. This seemingly wonky change has real consequences on real people, because it shines the light on whether children – particularly poor children – are benefitting from the promise of education.

OGP is not a household name. Is that a problem?

Yes and no. Among government and civil society professionals – and businesses and academics and others who care about the state citizen relationship – it would help if the OGP platform and its versatility were better known. I think far too many reformers in government and change agents in civil society have not yet seized the OGP platform as well as they could to advance their own agendas.  But on the public level – for the teachers in a school or the patients in a hospital or the members of youth sports group – it doesn’t matter if they have not heard of the OGP. What is more important is if their thinking and imagination – if the norms, aspirations and ideas they have – have benefitted from their country being part of OGP.

Is OGP changing the relationship between citizens and governments?

Opinion polls across the world show that most people do not trust their government to improve lives. 25 years from now I would love it if those opinion polls showed that, yes there are problems, but on the whole people realize that the way to achieve their aspirations, the way to realize the society we all want, is with and through government.

OGP is about reclaiming government, about people not being passive and waiting for government to fix itself or being cynical and just pointing fingers, but citizens getting together and saying, “it’s our life, it’s our society and we are going to make damn sure that our government works for us. If we want to create better lives for citizens across Africa and in the rest of the world, we will have to make sure our governments are responsive and open.”

I am waiting to see the T-shirt that says “Government is us.”

Rakesh Rajani is the director of civic engagement and government at the Ford Foundation. He was one of the founders of the OGP, and has served on its steering committee and as the partnership’s co-chair.

Open Government Partnership