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Using OGP to caucus for bigger and better results

Paul Maassen|

The Open Government Partnership is a dynamic platform where issues, interests and actors come together on both the national and international level. When it all comes together, this platform is a fertile base for partnership, achievement and, at times, even constructive conflict. It is a vibrant market place where deals are made and open government becomes reality.

Civil society has been a vocal participant on the platform from day one, when it was optimistic about the potential of the idea of OGP but critical of its design. As the platform became more familiar civil society understood better how to more effectively talk, trust and work with government. Some transitioned into strategic advocates that were able to achieve realistic reforms while not giving up on its bigger goals. It’s no coincidence that some of the strongest OGP success stories are those where civil society is active and strategic.

Much of this has happened nationally, as domestic dialogue is at the heart of OGP. Recently, though, I see more intense use of the international side of OGP by civil society to push its agenda. This has included using OGP events as moments to force action, creating effective cross-border and cross-issue coalitions, and by simply asking OGP leaders to speak out.

The challenge I am posing is to become even better at smart advocacy by learning from what worked and teaming up to replicate the most successful reforms from one OGP country to another.

To win campaigns civil society needs to use all its tools, including OGP. Using OGP can create leverage when used at the right time and in the right way. Some inspiring examples of smart use of the international dimension and networks of OGP, some of which yielded great results for civil society, include:

National civil society smartly uses an OGP event to get a big national win:

  • UK civil society used the OGP Summit in London in November 2013 as a hook to get a major additional commitment on beneficial ownership, which was announced by Prime Minister Cameron at the Summit.
  • Civil society (and government) in Sierra Leone used the OGP Summit in London as an action-forcing deadline to push for a Freedom of Information Law, which would make the country eligible to join OGP. The country passed the law on October 30 and joined OGP a day later at the Summit.
  • Irish civil society smartly campaigned for abolishing fees for FOI requests, using the OGP Regional Meeting in Dublin in May 2014 as a key moment to amplify the message. The Irish government listened and promised to axe most fees.

International civil society uses OGP events to define an ask or take a stand:

  • At the London Summit more than 100 organisations and 80 individuals signed a “statement of concern on disproportionate surveillance”. The Webfoundation and Access Info Europe initiative had 3 asks of OGP participating countries, including one to commit in their OGP Action Plans to “transparency on the mechanisms for surveillance, on exports of surveillance technologies, aid directed towards implementation of surveillance technologies, and agreements to share citizen data among states.” It was the first statement of its kind, which is why OGP struggled a bit to come to a timely and proper response.
  • Asian civil society caucused virtually in the run-up to the Bali Regional meeting in May 2014. The civil society day ended with a triple ask for the Steering Committee the next day. The communiqué made very concrete suggestions for OGP participating countries to increase civic space, push for a specific good governance goal in the Post 2015 framework, and significantly improve on the OGP process, specifically in participation.
  • Forty Latin American organisations issued a statement after the Regional Meeting in San Jose last November acknowledging the importance of OGP as a platform for facilitating dialogue between governments and civil society. However, they also asked OGP to do more to guarantee and facilitate real participation of civil society in the national processes. All OGP governments and many civil society actors from the Americas teamed up to urge the UN to include targets related to transparency, accountability and access to justice in Goal 16 of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Civil society leaders reach out to the broader OGP community to build an advocacy coalition for either domestic or global campaigns, creating new alliances:

  • Civil society in Indonesia recently campaigned to stop the weakening and criminalisation of the anti-corruption committee (KPK). They got the human rights commission, the ombudsman, 370 Indonesian civil society organisations and the president to speak out, putting a halt on the most immediate threats. They also asked the global OGP community to speak out, and many did. 
  • Brussels-based NGOs invited civil society across Europe to sign a call for the new EU leadership to commit EU institutions to close engagement with – and eventual membership in – OGP. More than 50 organisations signed on. The call was launched with a debate at the OGP Regional Meeting and was followed by advocacy meetings in Brussels, a strong support letter from European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly and will soon be followed by a push on Members of the European Parliament by national civil society.
  • Transparency International published a sign-on letter last January calling for continued backing of a governance goal in the post-2015 agenda. More than 70 civil society organisations and companies signed, most of them active on the OGP platform.

This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many more examples, such as cases where diplomatic outreach happened through OGP, but such action doesn’t show in tweets and statements. 

What the examples do show is that we have a new tool for effective results: OGP as a dynamic platform where agendas get pushed and connected.

Strategic advocacy by civil society can result in concrete reforms, like it did in Ireland. Clearly articulated and continuous pressure from civil society on what works –  and doesn’t – helps shape the OGP mechanism, such as it did with the new response policy to address concerns around space for civil society.

Connecting agendas and connecting actors can amplify changes. What if British civil society and government now work together to get another five countries to sign up to their commitment on beneficial ownership transparency?

So here’s my challenge: First, bring more civil society onto the platform and then connect, caucus and collaborate in all forms and shapes to push OGP to improve and governments to open up more ambitiously. Second, get even better in smart advocacy for concrete outcomes, mixing national and international action, and mixing public statements with strategic advocacy.

We can be inspired on that challenge by Mexican civil society. It used all tools available to push back on proposed changes to the transparency law: leveraging political connections, media interviews, a letter from the OGP civil society chairs and one from the national OGP coalition and, above all, the strength of seasoned civil society (FOI) coalitions. It was a great example of old-school, smart advocacy that got them most of what they sought.

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