In the week after the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brazil April 18-19 a number of articles have appeared with reflections on the conference, largely favorable but sometimes raising issues such as government accountability and civil society participation.
Canadian blogger David Eaves wrote that the carrot of membership is working, but wondered about the stick. “The OGP has already demonstrated that the term open can capture the imaginations of a broad group of people and is a desirable trait to which governments want to be associated…. But the stick – which is essential to many civil society participants – remains still somewhat vague.”
He explained further:
South Africa – a OGP steering committee member(!) – is in the process of enacting the “Protection of Information Bill” which effectively makes leaks illegal. If this can happen without any sanctions to its OGP status, then I suspect, the process loses a great deal of credibility. The participation of Russia raises similar questions. While it speaks volumes about the attractiveness of the OGP and Russia’s participation may help foster some domestic positive changes, to admit a country that is regularly accused of rigging elections and where journalists routinely go missing is likely to frustrate many who wish to use the OGP as a stick by which to hold their own governments to account. How worried will Mexico, Turkey or Canada be about reneging on its commitments if South Africa is allowed to pass draconian laws around access to information, or journalists are allowed to go missing in Russia?
Also among his other observations from Brasilia was:
There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular.
He concluded by noting:
Much less important, but still worth noting, is the simple fact that the logistics must be better next time. While the Brazilians were generous and warm hosts and, unlike in New York, civil society participants were thankfully not segregated from the government representatives, the failure to have internet access on the first day was unacceptable.
South African Coalition Issues Statement
On April 17, on the eve of the OGP meeting in Brazil, a coalition of South African groups questioned their government’s legitimacy as an OGP member with a spot on the Steering Committee (Download PDF). The coalition noted negative developments in South Africa, highlighting the “unprecedented opposition to the draconian clauses of the Protection of State Information Bill” proposed by the South African government and apparently on the verge of passage.
The coalition called on the OGP steering committee to:
• Ensure that the South African government reports to the OGP Steering Committee on developments regarding the re-drafting of this legislation in line with the broad range of concerns raised;
• Ensure that the South African government engages with civil society in order to develop a monitoring system for its OGP commitments.
Last year, the nine civil society members of the OGP Steering Committee issued a caution to South Africa (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)
The Steering Committee’s recently issued Articles of Governance address the issue of noncomplying members. (See report in FreedomInfo.org.).
Under Section II the new Articles, countries that “cease to act consistently with OGP principles” will first be engaged by Steering Committee members. Those falling below the eligibility criteria would have to take remedial in a year or face suspension, with appeal rights.
Ten Key Learning Points Listed
“10 take-ways” were identified by British blogger Tim Davies “in the spirit of constructive critique.”
Davies fleshes each one out, but the barebones list is:
1) Good ideas come from everywhere
2) The quality of Right to Information really matters
3) Whistle blower protection is an important factor in the journey from openness to impact
4) We’ve not yet cracked culture change and capacity building
5) Ditto effective large scale public engagement
6) There is a need to distinguish e-government, from open government
7) We need both data infrastructures, and accessibility ecosystem, for open data
8) We need to develop a deeper dialogue between technologists and issue activists
9) Monitoring should ultimately be about change for citizens, not just commitments and process
10) Deciding on the tenth item for a ten-item list is tricky
David Stern, director of Online Engagement at AmericaSpeaks (a U.S. group designed “to reinvigorate American Democracy by engaging citizens in the public decision-making that most impacts their lives), wrote: “The meeting, along with the recently released National Action Plans and our prior experiences with OGP, left me guardedly optimistic that the OGP can have a huge impact in the years ahead. It has the potential to be an enduring force for greater citizen engagement with government throughout the world.”
“Viewed optimistically,” he said, “OGP is a carrot that rewards openness with positive publicity, both domestically and abroad. It is a stick that can embarrass countries that fall short of the standards set by their peers. It is a network for cross-country exchange of best practices and effective strategies for creating greater openness. And it is a platform for innovators to experiment with and spread good ideas throughout the world.”
Stern continued, “Viewed pessimistically, the OGP is a propaganda mechanism with little capacity for monitoring and enforcement; simply a way for the US to advance its foreign policy goals without any meaningful improvements or contributions to democracy and public engagement.”
He noted that “In the case of the US, so far the optimistic view seems to be justified” and he praised the U.S. government’s engagement with domestic civil society. OGP co-chair Brazil, he commented, “passed a Freedom of Information Act law as a direct result of its role in the partnership, a very significant (if overdue) step.”
However, he continued:
“For most of the countries now joining, it’s not yet clear whether optimism is warranted. It’s somewhat surprising that countries like Jordan and Russia were able to join the partnership. What does it mean for non-democratic governments to be members? Libya and Tunisia were featured prominently at the event. While each recently replaced dictatorships, it’s not clear whether their new governments are taking steps to ensure that the bureaucracies they are building are transparent and focused on public engagement. Will the Partnership penalize or expel countries if the goals they include in their action plans are not meaningful or are not implemented? Will expulsion serve as a significant disincentive?
Stern recounts other experiences at the meeting, including panel on participation he helped organize, before concluding:
Will this OGP thing have legs? Will public participation and democratic engagement remain a core focus for the initiative in the years to come? In short, we don’t know, but the initial signs are quite positive. We should have a better idea regarding OGP’s value and future at the next annual meeting in London.
A short article in BeyondAccess by Rob Cronin, IREX Civil Society Vice President, includes the comment:
It’s clear that in the rush to get Action Plans written and published, very few of the country partners have a well-thought-out plan for what happens next and how the plans are implemented or consumed by citizens. While that is a weakness of the action plan process, to be honest, much of that responsibility falls to the media and civil society.
But at the same time, there’s one consideration that’s often missing from government action plans. It’s the “how”. New online tools are great, but if people don’t know about them, they can’t improve lives. New services are useful, but if there’s no way to learn how to use them, old and inefficient means of interaction will prevail. Data can’t be truly transparent if there’s no way to see it. Yet our research found that governments are typically focusing only on the supply side – only three of the government action plans released by last week had any consideration of how people would access any of these new possibilities.
A short summary was published by Alan Hudson of One International.
An article by Jane Dudman in The Guardian on what’s next for the OGP.
The Guardian also posted other articles and some video interviews, such as one with the Latvian foreign minister about transparency efforts there. There’s a video interview with Tim Kelsey, the UK’s director of government transparency and open data. Others are a bit hard to locate on The Guardian “Transparency and Development” page.
U.S. Agency Plans Reviewed
A comprehensive summary and evaluation of the action plans issued recently by individual U.S. agencies has been written by Suzanne Dershowitz, Public Policy Fellow at POGO (Project On Government Oversight) in Washington. Among other points, Dershowitz comments, “We are concerned that the agencies that have traditionally been more closed to the public are the ones offering weaker plans and failing to take meaningful action toward real openness.”
Some official videos from the conference are here, although the tapes of all the sessions that were made do not appear to be uploaded.
And there’s a series of short videos from the meeting with 58 people addressing “what does open government mean to you?”
Also, there’s a piece featuring civil society representatives on “what did you learn at #OGP2012?
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