Rethinking How We Use Open Government in Public Service Delivery
Service delivery is a critical frontier for an open government strategy. Public services are not only a key interface of people’s interaction with government, they also serve as a thermometer that can indicate a citizen’s satisfaction and trust in government. Importantly, they are critical to improving people’s lives. For many in the open government community, the Sustainable Development Goals are the cornerstone of this conversation. More recently, the World Bank and many members of the Open Government Partnership are championing the human capital project — a global effort to accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth.
It is not surprising that open government reforms often focus on public services. In the first four cycles of OGP action plans, 2168 commitments out of 2883 commitments analyzed in the OGP Explorer database deal with public services —more than 75% of the total commitments. However, when we analyze public services commitments, almost 70% focus on open data and e-government reforms, whereas only 21% of commitments specifically target service delivery results. Moreover, what it is more interesting is that if we cross out how many commitments target service delivery results on specific sectors —such as education, health, defense and natural resources— the percentage of commitments goes down to 9%. For example, OGP’s health commitments fact sheet key takeaways talk about moving the focus from data availability to data use. This includes facilitating public participation in the rollout of major health policies and creating systems for citizen monitoring of health-service delivery. In other words, more needs to be done to overcome the gap between open government, social accountability, and service delivery.
Are we missing the opportunity to act?
The effort to mainstream open government, social accountability and citizen engagement into sectors has a long trajectory. A recent RTI report finds that “there is ample evidence that improved governance has positively contributed to sector-specific outcomes. But macro level analysis, broad conceptualizations, and decontextualized interventions offer few guideposts for practical and effective governance integration.”
The lack of guideposts for programmatic work that busts the silo between sectors and governance could be a missed opportunity for action.
In service delivery, the windows of opportunity to mainstream open government and social accountability are opening. The experience of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability, shared at the 2018 Global Partners Forum, suggests human development sectors’ increased attention to the quality of service delivery is a game changer. For example, in education, targeting learning outcomes is a complex task that the education sector cannot deliver on its own. Open government and social accountability have a function to play that goes beyond providing information and sharing datasets —it’s about addressing the political causes that undermine the adoption, implementation, and sustainability of sectoral policies.
The bigger point here is that as the conversation about development embraces cross-sector programing and policies, open government and social accountability have a different added value. The value in each case will depend on engaging sector problems in their political context rather than a ready-made solution in search of problems.
Prioritizing services and sectors to open government wins
The good news is that we have identified a range of colleagues and experiences who are already thinking and doing open government with and for sectors. They include but are not limited to:
- In Malawi, Morocco, Moldova, and Mongolia GPSA-funded projects are informing governments and development partners’ investments. One of the key functions of social accountability is addressing the governance challenges that undermine the implementation of school-based management reforms. In engaging parents in schools, social accountability processes also support pro-learning processes. On Kenya, see here.
- Jack Clift, Caroline Poirrier, Courtney Tolmie from Results for Development recently wrote: “When it comes to nutrition, the typical mother in a low- or middle-income country is more instinctively multi-sectoral than any government planner can hope to be.” They argue for complementing existing multi-stakeholder and multi-sector initiatives with multi-sector citizen action. In health, there is research in the pipeline that may highlight the value of multi-stakeholder co production of services and accountability in India, the Dominican Republic & Indonesia.
- The Social Observatories in Londrina and Itajai in Brazil sought to address problems in the delivery of urban maintenance contracts. Each multi-stakeholder group was able to problem-solve by implementing types of monitoring and accountability strategies tailored to specific types of contracting modalities and different organizational structures (see here). For examples in Southern Africa see here.
- In Argentina, two commitments from the second and third OGP national action plans led to the creation of a federal round table and platform on habitat and human development. Since 2016, civil society organizations, local and provincial governments, as well as the private sector have participated to articulate and analyze policy proposals bringing into light infrastructure deficits and informal areas in the country.
A key insight across these processes is that open government and social accountability practitioners are not offering data, transparency, accountability and participation as a silver bullet technical solution. They are making the effort to talk to sectoral stakeholders and integrate ongoing sectoral reforms, contexts and dynamics. Our colleagues identify the concrete value add of their work as well as ways to integrate programing in practice. Often, they get their hands dirty in the implementation process. The challenge is strategic and operational at once.
We are encouraged by a growing coalition of actors putting the issue and the challenges of integrating open government and other work on the table. We echo Alfonsina Penaloza’s warning of what will not make government more open and inclusive for women: toolkits, obsessing over specific commitments, not paying for it. We want to build on her big idea of what might do it: “include women’s rights and advocacy groups from the beginning”. The point seems valid as a jump off point for service delivery sectors too: we need to engage sector stakeholders in civil society, but also bring in sector actors in government, private sector, and development partners.To do so we need to engage with the systems, processes, organizations, and institutions that deliver on the ground. Paying attention to efforts and theories of change in and beyond civil society has been instrumental to achieve, scale, and sustain results in the cases mentioned above, as well as in selected OGP commitments.
We can build on these insights to reframe how we do open government to deliver public services. Global platforms such as the Open Government Partnership, the Global Partnership for Social Accountability, and others can help us connect the dots and leverage experience. As Brian Levy put it, to take advantage of the opportunities we need to move beyond a “dialogue of the deaf” between proponents of public management or sectoral reforms and citizen-driven approaches. We need to put some stock on learning about what role we play in solving concrete problems, mitigating implementation risks of ongoing reforms, and using governance to contribute to service delivery on the ground.
 We used tags in the OGP explorer database to identify commitments. Tags are assigned by the OGP Support Unit.