Tipping the Balance: A New Year, New Opportunities for OGP

I am a huge fan of New Year’s Eve. It is not just the parties and the fireworks. It is the chance for honest and critical reflection on the past year. And the chance to get things right in the year ahead. Reflecting on my year as civil society co-chair, I am struck by the areas where OGP is falling short. But I am also filled with a sense of cautious optimism that in the new year we can achieve a tipping point in open government.

A different kind of partnership. Growing inequality, pervasive insecurity and massive corruption scandals affect the everyday realities of citizens. Yet too often we see these issues as lying outside the scope of OGP. In times of growing distrust between government and citizens, the essential tools of open government – transparency, accountability and dialogue - can be powerful forces for positive change.  

First and foremost, OGP is a mechanism for domestic accountability. Yet the power of our international partnership may also be used strategically in support of national reform. Earlier this year, reinforcing domestic advocacy efforts, the civil society co-chairs raised their voices to ensure the process and content of the General Transparency Law in Mexico reflected perspectives and priorities of government and civil society.  Later OGP governments and civil society rallied in support of the preservation of Office of the Comptroller General (CGU) in Brazil, a key champion in the anti-corruption movement. The Criteria and Standards sub-committee has taken the first steps to implement the new response policy.  And at the Global Summit, numerous leaders called upon OGP to ensure that fundamental freedoms of civil society activists are upheld.

Each of these steps has been taken in the spirit of OGP – seizing a critical moment where a defined opening existed, and working hand-in-hand with domestic reformers. Yet these instances are largely the exception. And the pace of response is embarrassingly slow. The response policy trudges forward, arguably thoughtfully and cautiously, but as those whose suffering gave rise to the initial complaint languish. OGP must be unafraid to capitalize these moments, leveraging the international nature of our partnership to support essential domestic open government reforms

Sharpening our focus. For the past several years, we have debated questions of depth versus breadth, and quantity versus quality. The reality of the rapid growth of OGP is that we have a daunting number of countries who are participating on paper only.

According to the OGP Support Unit, roughly twenty percent of countries are delivering high quality commitments, engaged in robust dialogue and translating their national action plans into concrete impact. These countries serve as the leaders of OGP, a source of inspiration, learning and peer support.

Another twenty percent have little to no engagement with OGP and some act in ways that actively undermine OGP through crackdowns on civil society. We have rightly invested efforts to protect the legitimacy and credibility of OGP to address a handful of these outliers. Though OGP is a voluntary initiative, those who have stepped forward must also step up.

Where we can and should invest even further is on the sixty percent of countries who are nearing the tipping point of open government. In these countries, we have the opportunity to ensure consultation more than a box checking exercise. To support the development of ambitious commitments that reflect citizen priorities. To engage domestic reformers who have the willingness, but need the know-how.  It is critical that the OGP community provide real time support to enable course correction. We can learn not only after the fact, but along the way. With concerted, timely support, we can help a greater share of countries achieve their open government potential.

Strength in numbers. Given the breadth of countries participating in OGP, we have an opportunity to create a tipping point around the issues that matter most to citizens. The OGP working groups bring together governments and civil society organizations to support the creation and effective implementation of more ambitious open government commitments as part of OGP national action plans. Through their work we are creating a critical mass of countries using OGP to improve budget transparency, natural resource governance, legislative openness and open data.

However, beyond these formal mechanisms we have not effectively developed and promoted shared commitments to encourage more ambitious collective action around the most pressing open government agendas. OGP moved quickly to link to the Sustainable Development Goals. We now need to put that agenda into action.  In the coming year, forty countries will be developing new national action plans. We have a tremendous opportunity for collective action if we caucus effectively across civil society and governments. To push for meaningful freedom of information laws, to open sectors like extractives and security that are traditionally opaque and to support essential international initiatives such as the recently signed climate agreement.

Creating these tipping points requires a critical appraisal of where we are falling short and where we can be better together in the years ahead. Without ambitious commitments that connect political realities with the priorities of the people, OGP will remain the purview of the elite and the isolated, rather than an integrated and critical means to impact the lives of citizens. We will ultimately be judged not just by our success and failure, but by our willingness to be daring in our efforts to achieve a tipping point of open government.


Authors: Suneeta Kaimal