OGP to Discuss South Africa Secrecy Law, Other Topics

2 December 2011

What to do about member countries that backslide on transparency will be discussed Dec. 6 by the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee, with the backdrop being South Africa’s plan to adopt what critics call a “secrecy bill.”

At least one commentator, with strong links to the OGP, has called on the nine representatives of civil society on the steering committee to publically criticize the law that South Africa appears about to pass.  South Africa is one of eight countries on the steering committee.

 The CSOs serving on the steering committee “risk a major reputational hit if they remain silent on the matter, at least publicly,” wrote Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity in a blog post. He continued, “CSO acquiescence in the face of the South African controversy can only undermine OGP’s unique approach of having CSOs and governments serve side by side as equal partners in a governance role.”

 Global Integrity facilitates the OGP’s Networking Mechanism, which seeks to connect aspiring OGP governments to open government experts from the public sector, the private sector, and civil society. Heller will be making a presentation on that topic to the steering committee at the upcoming meeting in Brazil.

In his posting, Heller wrote, “We (and many others) view the new South African secrecy bill as anathema to everything OGP stands for.”

He also wrote:

Shortly after the bill passed the legislature, an email debate erupted in open government/transparency quarters as to whether South Africa should possibly be booted from OGP. We don’t think that’s necessarily the best approach. But we do think that the OGP needs to take a firm and clear position on the issue. This is going to happen again in the future with another country, and there will need to be consistency in terms of the response.

First, if the South African government continues to back the legislation in its current form, serious consideration should be made to removing South Africa from the OGP steering committee. It seems inappropriate for a government that is actively taking steps backwards on openness and transparency to play a governance role in OGP.

Second, decisions around the future composition OGP steering committee need to be accelerated. An important planning meeting in London last month discussed various options, including whether and when governments should step down from the steering committee, and what role the broader “plenary” of new OGP governments should play in nominating and endorsing the steering committee. In the wake of events in South Africa, decisions need to be taken quickly that provide clear guidance moving forward on OGP’s future operation.

Third, the nine civil society organizations that serve on the OGP steering committee need to take a public position on the secrecy bill. We know that the controversy will be on the agenda for the steering committee’s meeting in Brasilia next week. That is good. But the CSOs serving on the steering committee risk a major reputational hit if they remain silent on the matter, at least publicly. CSO acquiescence in the face of the South African controversy can only undermine OGP’s unique approach of having CSOs and governments serve side by side as equal partners in a governance role

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, civil society groups in South Africa and around the world should use South Africa’s role on the OGP steering committee as leverage to continue pushing for amendments to the secrecy bill.  (The Open Democracy Advice Center has hinted at this in a recent article on its website). OGP’s greatest contribution to the secrecy bill debate could be its ability to provide a face-saving way for the South African government to reframe possible amendments to the bill.

New international initiatives such as OGP need to have their mettle tested early to confirm their relevance and bolster their champions.  The South African secrecy bill provides an opportunity for the OGP to draw a line in the sand and say, “Here but no further.”

OGP Discussion Expected

Several steering committee members contacted by FreedomInfo.org confirmed that the situation in South Africa is on the agenda, although it is not specifically listed. The broader topic of “SC Mandate + OGP Structure and Membership” is a major topic for the steering committee, according to the recently posted agenda.

Whether the civil society members will comment jointly on the South Africa law remains to be seen, and messages to FreedomInfo.org suggest their response is still being formulated. It is considered unlikely that the OGP steering committee as a whole would react.

Other topics on the steering committee’s day-long agenda include: “Relationship between the Steering Committee and broader OGP Participants,” “Protecting OGP Against Process Abuses and Violations,” and “Civil Society, Private Sector, Sub-national and Multilateral Participation.”

The steering committee meeting will precede a two-day “working level” meeting, largely closed, at which ministers from OGP member countries, now 49, will discuss the multilateral effort and discuss their countries’ efforts. Steering Committee members are scheduled to report, also in closed session, on future directions. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)The OGP was launched officially in September in New York. An OGP disclosure policy is being developed.

(All FreedomInfo OGP articles are collected here.)

Consultation Reports Posted

The OGP recently posted reports from five countries on their consultation efforts to prepare their action plans. The eight charter OGP members already have produced action plans. The other members are scheduled to present oral reports on their efforts during the meeting in Brazil, and have their final plans ready for another meeting in Brazil, in April.

The consultation efforts are to be guided by consultation principles devised by the OGP, but already some countries’ efforts have been criticized as falling short.

The reports — from the Unites States, South Africa, Indonesia,  the Philippines and Mexico — in some cases describe their past consultation efforts and their outreach intentions going forward.

South Africa notes that consultations have already been held and reports:

The process of engaging Cabinet on the OGP process started immediately after the July meeting through the drafting of a Cabinet Memorandum on the Open Government Partnership that was submitted for approval to the Minister for Public Service and Administration on 10 August 2011. Thereafter, the Cabinet Memorandum was presented to the Governance and Administration (G&A) Working Group and Cluster Meeting (15 November 2011). In January 2012, it will be presented to the G&A Cabinet Committee who will recommend that it goes to Cabinet for approval.

Later, the South African report states:

Once Cabinet has approved South Africa`s continued participation in the OGP, an OGP multi-stakeholder forum consisting of government and civil society organisations will be established. This forum will be mandated to develop and implement a public consultation process roadmap for South Africa`s final OGP country action plan.

U.S. Plan Pledges Quarterly Meetings

 The U.S. plan indicates that “general National Plan implantation meetings” will be held roughly every three months. This falls short of a civil society request for the establishment of a standing  advisory body.

The U.S. report takes a subtle dig at CSOs for being overly concerned about process, stating:

One challenge through the process was the amount of focus stakeholders gave to the process of drafting the Plan over the substance (e.g., how many times U.S. officials met with stakeholders).  In addition to coming up with a consultation plan, it is important to stress to civil society the importance of their substantive ideas in the drafting of the Plan. 

The group OpentheGovernment recently made recommendations concerning future development of the U.S. plan and indictaed it would evaluate implementation of the plan in September 2012.

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