Smile to the camera, say “transparency”

There is no question regarding the fact that transparency policies, generally speaking, have captured the attention of a wide variety of stakeholders that from different grounds and interests have praised transparency to be one of the cornerstone initiatives of modern governance. In the words of Christopher Hood, transparency has become a pervasive cliché, and he may be just right. Everyone loves it, though we are not sure if it’s for the same reasons, nor actually do we know if we all love the same thing.

Big expectations are over the shoulders of transparency; governments expect public sector efficiency and growth, civil society expects accountability and participation in the policy process, companies and entrepreneurs expect new business opportunities, and democracy more generally expects that with transparency we will all be better off.

Vast amounts of articles and columns have stressed the bright side of transparency, highlighting why is it better to be open than closed and better bottom-up than merely top-down. Even though as member of a pro-transparency community of NGOs I would quickly classify myself and our organization in the side of the optimists, in times where OGP and the transparency agenda is getting increasing attention, it looks like appropriate to focus not only on transparency expectations, but also on the challenges associated with meeting those expectations and the risks involved in the process, which may potentially hazard any apparent transparency achievement. Looking forward to the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brasilia, the first big challenge is about participation and the level of cohesion behind a transparency action plan that is expected to be the result of an open and franc dialogue between governments and civil society organizations. The degree to which the actions plans are the result of a participatory process, and not a mere consultation or top-down notification, is fundamental for the luck of a transparency initiative that is said to be defined by civil society participation. Risks to a participatory process include CSO’s that may push to hard in an “all in” transparency agenda for the action plan that may provoke government’s robust opposition, but it may also include the risk of a government that smiles to the camera every-time the word “transparency” and “participation” is mentioned, but that in practice, does not understand that participation is about dialogues and not monologues, about agreements and not notifications. It will be hard for many governments that will face a more substantive participation for the first time. A second big challenge regards to the governance of OGP. It is yet to be seen how will OGP govern member countries without mediating international treaties or law enforcing tools, and how will it govern such a diverse group of civil society organizations that though committed to democracy, are not necessarily elected bodies. We witness an innovative organization that will have to prove that transparency and civic participation can move forward without traditional law-binding instruments. Risks on the other hand remain on failing to pressure governments to fulfill their transparency commitments, and to have them praise their OGP membership without achieving nor even committing to real substantive transparency reforms, in opposition to small cosmetic transparency policies that are abundant in many country action plans. The governance of civil society organizations on the equal side of governments is a chapter in itself. It is also to be seen how coordination, standards and agreements will be achieved among CSO’s, how will they be represented at upper levels of OGP, but above all, how will we develop enough cohesion to protect organizations that are left on the sides by governments that oppose an open dialogue, and cohesion to stand together to push for real transparency change. No doubt that transparency is the hot topic of our days, and that OGP will gather the creme of governments and civil society organizations that will smile to the camera every-time someone mentions the word “transparency”. We will be there for the picture, but will also be there to make sure that OGP takes off, and that governments keep their transparency promises as strong as they keep their smiles to the camera.

Authors: Felipe Heusser
Filed Under: Pledge
Tags: Brasilia