OGP Review: New Study, Continued Activism

25 June 2012

With the submission of most national action plans in the past and their review in the future, recent news about the Open Government Partnership lately has centered on the first study of the action plans and efforts to persuade countries to join or to live up to OGP ideals.

Activists in Ireland and Hungary are seeking to get their countries to join and make commitments.

In Tanzania, already one of the 55-member countries, activists used OGP membership as a pressure point in a campaign for certain audit reports to be made public. Ghana’s OGP membership, though no plan yet, also has been riased  in the context of the long-stalled effort to pass a right to information bill there.

There are scattered signs of emerging efforts by civil society groups to cooperate within the OGP context, one by a group in the Ukraine. Coordination efforts could be encouraged by Paul Maassen, the OGP Civil Society Coordinator, who started in mid-June and expects to be on the road from his base in Brussels.

Maassen told FreedomInfo.org that his objectives will include improving communication and the flow of information on open government, transparency and access topics; supporting in-country work by civil society; and ensuring that civil society is included and involved in official events and processes. Maassen has worked with Hivos, a Humanitarian Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries as Program Manager for ICT and media, and with the World Wildlife Fund.

Commentary of the OGP experiment also has diminished in quantity, but Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity raises provocative questions about OGP leadership, corporate involvement and goals in a recent blog post.  Among other things he observes that “the OGP experiment has moved forward with virtually no meaningful involvement from large multinational companies. For OGP to work as a long-run agency of change, this will need to change.

On the official front, the OGP Steering Committee is scheduled to meet in London in July.

Tanzania Reports Sought

In Tanzania, the nongovernmental organization Sikika chided local authorities for not making public an auditing report, according to an article in The Daily News.

“This is contrary to the spirit of Open Government Partnership (OGP) of 2011, to which Tanzania is a signatory,” the Executive Director of Sikika, Irenei Kiria Kiria said in a statement.

The article states: “He said in 2006, President Jakaya Kikwete directed government officials to make public all reports on development programmes including those issued by the CAG. He said Sikika is responsible for promoting people’s participation and openness in various government activities at all levels.”

The continuing effort by the South African government, an OGP Steering Committee member,  to pass the secrecy bill, is reviewed by Canadian blogger David Eaves in TechPresident.

Urging Membership in Ireland and Hungary

In Ireland, the nongovernmental organization Active Citizen wrote the government June 13 to encourage Irish membership.

“I am concerned that our country’s current position outside the initiative is damaging, but more than that I am certain that our membership will be of immense advantage to Ireland’s future,” wrote Active Citizen Dennis Parfenov.

In Hungary, where the government has previously indicated a desire to join, the K-Monitor Watchdog for Public Funds and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) have issued detailed recommendations (in Hungarian) here

The recommendations include: 

–  In order to provide for user-friendly and machine-readable formats in case of data published on governmental websites, legal regulation shall dispose of the way data is disclosed and the government shall adopt open data standards in public administration.

– Since there’s an obvious tendency in the jurisdictional interpretation of the FOI law to restrict the freedom of information, strengthening legal guarantees on data related to the management of national assets is essential.

– Public procurement databases need further upgrade and development.

– There’s a need to establish a central database on contracts concluded by the state (based on the Slovak model).

– The education of public officers on Hungarian freedom of information regulations is highly recommended.

– There’s a need for an effective judicial review procedure on classified information (state secrets).

TI Ukraine Seeks Regional Organization

Transparency International Ukraine recently circulated a project idea being discussing among Ukrainian CSOs active in OGP process. The goal is to cooperate in building capacities of NGOs of Black Sea region to work in the field of OGP, and to deepen cooperation with national government on this topic.

“In order to raise CSOs capacities, we want to concentrate on one topic, which is hot and juicy and is of equal interest in each country of the region,” began the letter. It continued: We think this is the issue of public availability of assets and incomes declaration of politicians and top civil servants can suit. And we want to gather CSOs of the region to work on this topic together, to create effective advocacy tools for ourselves, and to initiate cooperation with international organizations that work with our governments on this topic.”

Outcomes could include guidelines on how CSOs will cooperate with governments on this topic and a regional platform, “where we could develop our capacities to interact with our governments on OGP implementation.” Interested organizations in the Black Sea region were asked to email to Oleksii Khmara atogp@toro.org.ua

First Study of the Action Plans

Not much analysis has been issued on the action plans, but Global Integrity has jumped in, reported Nicole Anand on the group’s website.

The look at 40 plans evaluated whether a country’s commitments are 1) Specific 2) Measurable 3) Actionable 4) Relevant and 5) Time-bound.

“Overall, our assessment shows signs of some real reasons to be optimistic – nearly 70% of the submitted Action Plans meet at least four out of the five SMART criteria. Only a handful of the total 42 plans fulfilled two or less of the criteria,” according to the report. It continued in part:

The biggest gap was in benchmarking – a little less than half of the countries outlined metrics for assessing their progress. Slightly better than benchmarking was time-bound commitments – 40% (around 20 countries) have not yet provided a timeline for their activities.

Tracking with the number of overall plans that could be improved, just more than 15% include commitments that are outside of the scope of what we consider to be “open government.”  Around the same number of countries have yet to articulate how they plan to execute their activities.

The report says: “Unsurprisingly, countries that have been on the open government radar for some time now including Brazil, Canada, Israel, Croatia and Moldova delivered some of the strongest plans.  However, OGP countries including Jordan and the Dominican Republic faired similarly. For us, this is an exciting discovery because it keeps us optimistic about the prospects for OGP. This means that there are key member countries in all regions of the world that are vocal advocates for open government.”

Global Integrity also found that while some countries understand OGP commitments to be grand statements, others provide further details by committing to specific actions.

Also, “Based on our analysis, a sizeable number of Action Plans included at least one commitment that we classified as being outside of the scope of “open government.”

Take, for example, this commitment: “To develop a gender equality program together with all municipalities.”  We commend this effort and do not downplay the importance of it; however, this is a clear example of conflating democratic rights with activities that specifically target transparency, accountability and/or participation. Importantly, this reminds us that some amount of consensus around a meaningful definition of “open government” is required sooner rather than later for OGP to avoid becoming a dumping ground of random public sector reform efforts.

Next Steps

Looking ahead, Global Integrity offered “three points of consideration for readers, particularly those involved in their own country assessments (both domestic civil society and government):

  1. Consider evaluating to what extent plans contain a mix of targeted goal areas (i.e. commitments not limited to just one issue such as budget transparency or open data).  For example, the UK and Indonesian plans are almost entirely focused on the publication of data. Many of their commitments read something like this: “Promoting transparency, accountability and public participation in the area of government subsidies for education through the publication of budget allocation, disbursement, and expenditure data.” The question is: should these countries be encouraged to expand their focus? On the one hand, opening datasets for all to see and examine is no doubt a step towards a more transparent form of government. On the other hand, as we have expressed before and continue to monitor, seeking “quick wins” by committing to low hanging fruit (such as open data) may be a form of circumventing the tougher, perhaps more impactful open government reforms.
  2. Consider assessing whether country plans include a reasonable amount of “stretch” commitments (i.e. they are not simply activities that the country is currently engaged in and/or as a whole show a limited amount of ambition). For example, countries engaging in certain open government reforms may have the capacity do more. Another way to look at this is to read through your country’s action plan and assess if they are selling what they have already done or if they are striving for new achievements?
  3. Tied to the idea of “stretching” plans and going beyond low hanging fruit, is the concept of evaluating plans based on outcomes versus outputs for improving plans with a view to generate greater impact. For example, consider if metrics designed for evaluating progress should, for example, put less weight on “How many datasets were released?” and more emphasis on “How was published information used to enforce the law?”
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