India Withdraws From Open Government Partnership

12 July 2011

By Toby McIntosh

On the eve of the kick-off event for the Open Government Partnership, India dropped out, but the show went on, with enthusiastic pro-transparency speeches at a day-long event at the U.S. State Department in Washington.

The unexpected pull-out by a country with an international reputation for its strong right to information law was being downplayed by organizers as around 55 country representatives gathered to learn more about the multinational initiative begun last fall by President Obama.

Several U.S. officials and others close to the OGP still believe that many of the 80 invited countries will sign up. In doing so they would agree to develop country plans containing “concrete commitments” for more openness — and to have their progress reviewed by local and international governance experts.

The prospect of having its “action plan” commitments reviewed after a year by local and international governance experts was a key factor that caused India to withdraw, sources said.

Advocates of the OGP believe that other factors will encourage participation, however, including a growing awareness of the importance of transparency in good governance and attractive opportunities opened through technological innovations. The opportunity to network on transparency and “create a community of countries” also was cited. One seasoned observer noted the attraction of being able to share the stage with Obama in New York this September for the formal launch.

The positive benefits of transparency were emphasized by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota when they convened the session, and amplified during speeches during the rest of the day.

Patriota stressed that participation is voluntary and that it would be “a process of self knowledge and mutual support.” There will be no “quality labels” or “rankings” he said, and the monitoring will be done in “a technical, neutral, non-adversarial manner.” Brazil and the United States are chairing the steering committee.

India Withdraws

India’s withdrawal came after having participated for months as one of nine countries on the steering committee created last fall after Obama’s speech.

India was concerned about the Independent Review Mechanism that would accompany government self-assessment, preferring not to have outsiders pass judgment on Indian affairs, according to those familiar with the situation.

Under the OGP process, an independent assessment report “will be written by well-respected local governance experts from each OGP participating country,” according a just-released description of the process.  “These experts will fill out a common OGP independent report questionnaire, based on a combination of interviews with local OGP stakeholders as well as desk-based analysis.”

This report “will be shared with a small international expert committee (appointed by the OGP Steering Committee) for peer review to ensure that the highest standards of research and due diligence have been applied.”

The draft report will then be shared with the relevant OGP government for comment, according to the summary, which also says, “After receiving comments on the draft report from the government, the local expert will then finalize the independent report for publication on the OGP portal. OGP governments will also have the chance to issue a formal public response to the independent report on the OGP portal once it is published. The independent report will be made publicly available in the local language (s) and in English, and will be published approximately 3 months after the end of the 12-month OGP implementation cycle.”

Public Participation

In addition, the Indian government may be reluctant politically at this point to engage in a public consultation on transparency, observers said.

The OGP plan stresses that governments should engage the public to devise the action plans that those who join will commit to in September at the next OGP meeting, to be held in September on the fringe of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

This process would include a publicized public consultation process to seek out a diverse range of views. Also, countries would be asked “to undertake OGP awareness raising activities” and consult the population “with sufficient forewarning and through a variety of mechanisms.” Finally, countries “will identify a forum to enable regular multi-stakeholder consultation on OGP implementation.”

Roy Comments

Aruna Roy, one of the founders of the movement for the India RTI law, attended the meeting in Washington.

She told that the OGP was an opportunity for Indian leaders to share India’s leadership on right to information and “and for that reason they should not have opted out.”

India’s decision was announced at a July 11 meeting of the steering committee, which now has eight country members.

The remaining members are Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States. Civil society members are from “Africa Center for Open Governance (Kenya), Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (Brazil), Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (Mexico), International Budget Project (Intl), MKSS (India), National Security Archive (US), Revenue Watch Institute (Intl),Transparency and Accountability Initiative (Intl), Twaweza (Tanzania), according to the OGP. About 60 civil societygroups attended the OGP event July 12.

Clinton Pledges Innovation Fund

Clinton announced that the Unites States will create an innovation fund to address issues on transparency, corruption and civic engagement, and will launch pilot projects in these areas.  No dollar figures were given. She said she will soon issue a new directive instructing U.S diplomats to pay more attention to fighting corruption.

“We are very enthusiastic about this initiative,” began Clinton saying there is an “undeniable connection” between how a government operates and whether its people flourish. Greater transparency will lead to new ideas from the public and the better use of resources, she said. Without transparency, governments lose public trust and legitimacy, she said. “Openness is not good just for government it is also good for a sustainable growth in GDP,” she stated.

Promoting transparency “can be a lonely, sometimes even dangerous task, but thru this partnership we hope to change that,” she said, noting that the OGP would be a network for dissemination of best practices and innovation. “The OGP can help leaders who are trying to do the right things,” she said.

In a first plenary session, four speakers described various innovations in open government. After that, the open government  meeting was closed to the press. The day included “issue framing” panel discussions, more remarks by U.S. and Brazilian officials, demonstrations  in “Innovation Alley,” “Idea Sprints,” and talks on topics such as “transparency as a performance tool for governments.”

The text of Clinton’s speech is on State Department website along with the video, including Patriota’s remarks.

The new OGP website also includes the meeting agenda, a “roadmap” describing the OGP process, and a list of participants at the meeting.

The Transparency &Accountability Initiative website now has posted the final version of  a lengthy background paper called “Opening Government,” passed out at the meeting, outlining best practices and making recommendations in 15 areas. A section on the security sector was dropped from an earlier draft.

The website does not include the participation list distributed at the meeting.

More Details on OGP

New details about the OGP effort emerged on a new website, including information about eligibility, public participation and the planned monitoring mechanism.

In condensed form, the membership rules are:

To become a member of OGP, participating countries must embrace an Open Government Declaration; deliver a concrete action plan, developed with public consultation and feedback; and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.

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