“What’s going on with Peru? It went from being a star in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and an example of collaboration between government and civil society, to being a shadow full of disagreements.” A colleague that used to work in a multilateral organization asked me this direct question during the Americas Regional Meeting. He was not the only one, as other civil society representatives with whom we had talked during several OGP meetings asked the same question.
In 2012, when Peru became a member of OGP, there was a mix of novelty and renovated energy. But most of all, there was enthusiasm for the creation of a new collaboration forum between government and civil society, which had been closed for many years, to address issues such as transparency, citizen participation, and accountability. In this process, both parties learned new names for old concepts, and how to use new technology to address old problems. The development of Peru’s first action plan was a process that helped start a dialogue and to establish joint goals. Then, in maintaining this dialogue space and designing the second action plan, they faced a bigger challenge: increased demands by civil society as a response to changes in the government, which led to the undermining of the OGP process. In 2016, the new administration brought hope of re-starting the dialogue, but the truth is that there is still distrust among the stakeholders, despite the good intentions and the work carried out by the government around the third action plan.
So, is it worth it? For governments, OGP is the ideal forum to broadcast their successes and achievements, some of which were well-deserved, whereas others are a just a cover-up for opacity and vertical decision-making. For civil society, OGP represents an enabling environment for co-creation, as well as a mechanism for control and demand for their rights. The common denominator among the majority of countries is an unstable situation that alternates between collaboration and confrontation and where trust between stakeholders is fragile.
Why do we insist, then? First of all, I believe that OGP is the place to explore such tensions, because giving visibility to these issues will allow us to address them. Ignoring them would only hinder our ability to be constructive. Secondly, because of the scarcity of collaboration spaces where governments and organizations are able to share the room without creating parallel spaces out of fear of confrontation.
After this regional event, I reflected on some lessons we can learn. Here, I outline a few of them, but this list could grow if we engage other participants:
The dialogue forum is more important than the action plan. Many governments strive to comply with the methodology and timelines surrounding the action plan, when in reality, it is most important to establish a space to dialogue with civil society. Also, civil society organizations tend to be suspicious of the process or do not attend at all, out of fear of being used and losing the opportunity to express their concerns and collaborate in the trust-building process. The plan is a means, while the dialogue forum should be the end.
The action plan is the least we can do. We need to understand that the action plan is the least we can do, and that it describes agreements among the many disagreements between governments and civil society. Having an action plan does not represent an endorsement or certification from civil society in terms of open government, nor does it rate a country as transparent or inclusive.
There is no such thing as a homogenous civil society. It is a mistake to think that civil society is hierarchical and homogeneous like the state bureaucracy is, and that it functions in the same way across countries. Civil society organizations are highly heterogeneous, changing and organic, and have varying life cycles. Social movements can come up as quickly as social media allows them to. Governments need to understand that civil society organizations represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of the greater citizenry (organized and unorganized). Thus, the fact that some organizations participated in the action plan does not mean that it gathered all possible voices. It is a duty of governments and of civil society organizations that are close to OGP to create the necessary networks to practice the principles of open government, despite heterogeneity.
Opening up the space. Dialogue spaces must be increasingly open to engaging additional stakeholders. I rarely see businesses participating, and only occasionally parliaments take part in the process. Political parties are absent, and so are religious representatives – at least, I have not seem them. It might be an issue of lack of resources, but it is also about disseminating the principles of open government, and identifying better engagement strategies.
So, my colleague asked, “What is going on with Peru?” I told them: I think the government and civil society have learned, and we are embracing the opportunity to build on our disagreements to start a new phase. I have faith and I am taking on the challenge.