Taking Stock of OGP

11 May 2012

By Abhinav Bahl

Bahl works for Global Integrity, which published this article May 9.

The Open Government Partnership is officially afoot with the Articles of Governance formally approved and adopted at the first annual meeting in Brasilia last month. With distance gained from the meeting, this is a good moment to take stock of where the Partnership stands and the direction it needs to go.

First, governments should be commended for submitting their action plans regardless of the obligatory preening before the international community that accompanies them—national bombast is the indispensible currency of international summits after all (as one of our former bosses in the diplomatic service once commented, “There are no bad summits.”). The submission of the action plan is an important first step as it represents a very public commitment to a country’s national open government agenda. In Brasilia, 36 countries submitted their action plans and now will be expected to deliver on the commitments contained therein. By any standards, this is a significant achievement for a multilateral initiative that has not yet celebrated its first birthday.

But there are still big questions that need to be answered for the Open Government Partnership to maintain momentum after Brasilia 2012. The blog- and twitter-spheres have been abuzz with discussion on the Partnership’s promise and prospects. Two issues loom large for us (Disclosure: Global Integrity is responsible for implementing the Networking Mechanism for the Open Government Partnership):

1. Independent Review Mechanism: Beyond checking boxes

An essential but undeveloped component of the Open Government Partnership is the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM), the process through which countries will be held to account for their OGP commitments. The IRM is perhaps the most critical feedback loop that ensures accountability within the OGP.  

The Steering Committee agrees on broad principles that should govern the work of the IRM: neutrality, independence, accountability, agility, and transparency. However, deeper questions encompassing the mechanics and modalities of implementation remain unanswered: Who comprises the IRM? What tools will be used to assess progress towards implementation of country action plans? How will the IRM use a standardized process to assess heterogeneous country commitments? Who will fund the envisioned domestic civil society reports that will form the basis for the IRM’s international expert panel’s assessments on each country’s progress towards implementation?  How do you design the process to have teeth without it morphing into a counterproductive naming-and-shaming device?

Another big question is to what extent will the IRM assess outcomes and outputs. Measuring outputs (published open data sets, launched portals, civil society consultations) is often easier than outcomes. Evaluating governance outcomes (reduced corruption, improved service delivery, smarter budgetary allocations) are complex and politically contentious.  At some point the tension between outputs and outcomes will need to be resolved. The design of the IRM must be flexible enough to support this crucial requirement as the OGP evolves.

To their credit, the Steering Committee recognizes that the IRM presents a challenge requiring immediate action and seems committed to addressing it. While it may still be early days for the Partnership, the IRM is the linchpin of accountability that the Open Government Partnership must get right. Otherwise, the OGP could quickly unravel courtesy of a paralyzing lack of credibility.

2. Open Data: Giving governments an opportunity to put the cart before the horse

The reflexive tendency to conflate open government reforms with open data initiatives remains a cause for concern. Global Integrity wrote about this before and continues to watch developments in this space. We highly recommend this paper by Harlan Yu and David Robinson for those more deeply interested in the distinction.

We suspected that the growing appeal of technological solutions to governance challenges would eventually bleed into countries’ OGP commitments. We weren’t wrong. A quick analysis of commitments using preliminary data from the OGP Support Unit shows that of the 24 countries that submitted their commitments in machine-readable format prior to Brasilia, 50 out of 325 commitments (over 15%) are open data initiatives. Far more than any other commitment type made by OGP governments, the second most common commitment was e-government initiatives (49), followed by access to information (39) commitments.

Fetishizing open data projects could crowd out the appetite for arguably more fundamental, higher priority reforms. Particularly in the context of a multilateral initiative like the OGP, in which no country wants to be seen as the laggard, country commitments will naturally gravitate towards programs where success can be demonstrated easily. Open data initiatives are rarely as politically contentious as freedom of information laws or political finance reforms.

That is not to say that the low hanging fruit of open data should not be picked. Open data initiatives can be incredibly useful tools situated within a program of appropriately sequenced open government reform. However, the pursuit of open data as an end in itself and not as a means towards other reforms can lead to a technological myopia of sorts.

Case in point: the Philippines made a specific OGP commitment to develop a “Single Portal for Government Information,” which complies with open data standards. However, when it comes to Freedom of Information, the language gets fuzzy. There is a commitment to greater access to government information but no specific commitment to the passage of the proposed Freedom of Information Act, which, if passed, would be a significant leap towards more open government with far-reaching impact.  Admittedly, the Aquino administration cannot make a promise that requires direct action by the Philippines legislature. (This raises a related point: the OGP should encourage greater involvement of the legislative branch—and for that matter, all branches of government beyond the purview of the Executive—as many of the transparency reforms contemplated will require legislative action). 

Or take the case of India where the Right to Information Act has done more to change the culture of the sclerotic Indian bureaucracy and advance government accountability than the most ambitious open data project ever could. We recommend this paper for further analysis of why the time may not be ripe for pushing for an Indian open data initiative.

These questions are few of the many that citizens and civil society seeks answers to, and they cannot be answered by an annual conference. Steering the crowded and unwieldy ship of the Open Government Partnership will likely be a slow and iterative process. Broadly speaking, the Partnership is about changing norms, transforming the culture of government, and recalibrating government’s relationship with its citizens, which, if we’re being realistic, is a generational endeavor to say the least. By asking difficult questions during these early stages of the Partnership’s evolution, we can design an Open Government Partnership that citizens want rather than what governments need.

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