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Why Open Government Can – and Must – Help Build Safer Communities

Linda Frey |

I recently attended an energizing meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in the Americas, hosted by Costa Rica.  The event attracted the participation of more than 300 government and civil society participants from 17 OGP countries across the region.  These enthusiastic champions of open government reform participated in a series of 40+ parallel sessions on topics ranging from access to information, to legislative openness, to ensuring open government principles are part of the post-2015 development framework. Indeed, the success of the event confirmed that Latin America is one of the most active and dynamic regions in the world when it comes to pushing for more open and responsive government.

Casting a shadow of sorrow over the meeting was the widely shared concern about the tragic disappearance of 43 Mexican students from Ayotzinapa at the end of September.  In his opening remarks at the event, OGP civil society co-chair (and Mexican citizen) Alejandro Gonzalez referred to this tragedy as a “call to governments to recognize that the open government reform agenda is not a desirable accessory, but an absolute necessity.”  That evening, more than 100 individuals from across the region participated in a candlelight vigil at the Mexican embassy in San Jose, demonstrating solidarity and support for the families of the missing students and other victims of violence.

There is no doubt that these are difficult times for Mexico.  We all fervently hope that justice will be served, and that President Pena Nieto’s recently announced plan to reform the police will help improve security throughout the country. One question for Mexico and other governments in the region to consider is whether – and how – their open government initiatives and innovations might become at least part of the solution.

Mexico’s leadership of OGP and concerted effort to solicit public input on its OGP national action plan signal a strong commitment to improve government transparency and responsiveness to citizens.  And Mexico’s current action plan includes two policy initiatives that are extremely relevant in the current context:  a registration of detainees that would provide public access to statistical data on arrests in the country, and a missing persons database (based on the Missing Persons Register Law).  These two existing OGP commitments – which were co-created by government and civil society – are intended to make the justice administration process in Mexico more transparent and accountable, thereby enhancing public security.

As I contemplate the many conversations we had in Costa Rica, I am left with two wishes.  First, that OGP advocates throughout the region will find ways to directly engage citizens in a conversation with public officials about how to prevent further violence or impunity in their communities. My second wish is that we take the regional solidarity expressed in Costa Rica and translate it to a discussion of concrete examples of open government initiatives that are helping build safer communities.  Here are just a few that I learned about last week:

  • In Honduras, a recent initiative brought citizens and government officials together in a successful effort to root out corruption in the police force. A coalition of CSOs in Honduras, including the local Transparency International chapter, helped establish an external oversight mechanism  (the Security Multinational Commission) that monitors, evaluates and makes recommendations on the reform process.
  • In Colombia, the government is on track to deliver an OGP commitment from its first action plan related to improving access to information from the judiciary through the use of technological tools that allow citizens to track and understand the status of cases.
  • Several years ago civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic helped pilot an online platform where citizens were able to denounce abuses of power by the police and participate in police reform by proposing solutions.  Could this be a model for others in the region?
  • Peru has made substantial progress toward completing a commitment in its first OGP action plan to strengthen the part of the judicial system that specializes in corruption cases, including through improving processes and providing more timely information to the public.  These improvements led to 212 convictions of public officials in 2013.

Open government has become a bit of a buzz word, which is a good thing on the surface.  But the buzz won’t last long if we don’t bring open government approaches and tools to the table to tackle the most pressing problems that people face.  This clearly includes fighting corruption, promoting safer communities, and ensuring justice is served. I hope OGP can play some small part in encouraging this conversation and sharing concrete examples of progress from Latin America and beyond.  If you have an example to share, please comment below or visit us here to submit your own blog.