OGP Looks to Future at One Year Anniversary

26 September 2012

Commemorating its one-year anniversary, the Open Government Partnership is continuing to wrestle with finding the right balance between carrots and sticks.

The multilateral effort has attracted 57 members who together have made more than 300 specific commitments to improve transparency and open government in their national action plans. Speakers at the two-hour reception attended by about 120 persons in New York City, including United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, extolled the value of the OGP effort, but also stressed that ultimate success will depend on national follow-through.

“This is not about making commitments it is about delivering commitments,” said Francis Maude, the Cabinet Minister for the UK, which is now the “lead” co-chair for the OGP. He outlined the UK’s four priorities, which are oriented at selling the message of open government and developing the OGP as an organization. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.)

The most applause came for cautionary remarks by Rakesh Rajani of the East African group Twaweza, who also made a much-praised speech when the OGP, then with 46 members, was launched at a meeting attended by President Obama and other world leaders Sept. 20, also in New York.

If only 10 countries achieve one-third of their goals, the OGP will be worthwhile, he said, but stressed that citizens need to see positive and practical benefits. “The ultimate goal is to transform “the very relationship between the governed and the governments.” The odds on achieving this deeper vision are “small,” he said.

“The window to learn lessons and get our act together is closing very quickly,” he said. Commenting on several celebrated open government efforts in Tanzania and Kenya – telephone reporting of broken water wells and an open data portal, respectively — he said their promise is not being realized and warned, “I think the glass is more empty than full.” He put in a plug for passage of right to information laws, which are missing in some OGP member countries.

Finding a Balance

Behind the scenes, OGP leaders continue to refine plans for the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) that will help judge the progress made by governments toward meeting their goals.

Determined to encourage participation and create a fostering environment, the OGP’s leaders on the Steering Committee, are wary of putting too many teeth into the review mechanism, but also mindful that toothless reviews could undermine the OGP’s credibility.

These tensions underlie an ongoing discussion on how to refine the review mechanism, which has already been substantially defined.

The Standards and Criteria Subcommittee is drafting “principles” to go into a “guidance note” for the eight experts who will supervise the reviews, according to OGP officials.

How specific this guidance will be remains  to be seen.

The process already outlined envisions OGP member countries conducting annual self-evaluations. In addition, independent experts chosen by the IRM panel will prepare assessments, too. The principles aim to address the overall qualities of the assessments, officials said, and maybe more.

Countries that fail to meet an adequate standard for three straight years could be suspended.

There is “an appetite for teeth” in some quarters, including among governments, one government person said. One civil society member expressed concern about undercutting the independence of the review process. Another worried that the Steering Committee might delegate too much and avoid making the hard calls.

Also being talked about is how countries can be encouraged to improve their performance on the basic open government standards used to set the OGP eligibility standard. Seventy-nine countries were qualified for membership, but some have suggested that the threshold, designed to encourage membership, was too low. Within the freedom of information community, it has been noted that seven OGP members lack FOI laws and 14 others have poorly rated laws, yet only about 30 percent of the 44 countries that have submitted action plans pledged to upgrade their laws.

OGP eligibility is determined by scores on a 16-point scale, with 12 points necessary to get an invitation.

There is some sentiment for encouraging OGP members to raise their scores, but no consensus on how to accomplish that goal, sources told FreedomInfo.org. Having remedial steps included in action plans has been mentioned.

These and other topics were discussed during a S&C subcommittee meeting Sept. 25 and a three-hour Steering Committee working session on Sept. 26, according to seven participants interviewed by FreedomInfo.org. Most of the Steering Committee meeting involved updates, with one member even calling it “boring.” The sessions are closed with minutes usually released in several weeks.

The OGP Articles of Governance were revised in July to deal more with suspensions. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The key provision of the Articles states:

Should the IRM process find that a participating government repeatedly (for three consequent years) acts contrary to the OGP process and to its Action Plan commitments (Addenda B and C), fails to adequately address issues raised by the IRM, or is taking actions that undermine the values and principles of the OGP, the Steering Committee may upon recommendation of the Criteria and Standards (CS) Sub-committee review the participation of said government in OGP.

Other Developments

Among other tidbits from the meetings:

–       The OGP is very close to announcing the three senior experts for the IRM panel, who will later be joined by five technical experts.

–       The hunt for a new executive director has been narrowed to one person and an announcement on that is also expected soon.

–       Work is continuing on the OGP strategic vision document

–       Efforts to improve the function of the disclosure process are expected.

Remarks

Warren Krafchik, the OGP co-chair representing civil society, said the OGP “has achieved a lot very quickly, but has a big agenda: “to broker a new social compact … that drives public resources to meet public needs.” Krafchik is Senior Vice President for International Programs of the International Budget Partnership at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The next challenge is to translate action plans into action, he said, noting that citizens “care less about declarations than about the quality of their lives.” Civil society groups can help by being a resource and an ally to governments and being a critic, he said.

Kountoro Mangakusubroto spoke for Indonesia, which has taken on the third co-chairmanship, and will become chairman in a year. He said the role will provide “strong motivation” for Indonesia.

“This how you nurture string roots” in emerging democracies, he said.

There will be a side event on the OGP president at the Bali Democracy Forum in November, he said.

Cameron emphasized that open government and transparency us “absolutely key” to solving other problems including fighting corruption and improving economic growth.” If government makes data available it can be a huge engine of business creation,” he said.

CSO Survey Results

Also recently revealed were the results of a survey of 100 civil society organization. OGP CSO coordinator Paul Maassen summarized in a blog post:

 In summary: most of you – the respondents from the OGP community – are working for NGOs that are working on your countries favourite commitment areas  and are hoping that OGP will leverage the transparency and accountability work in your countries. You found the consultation process not good, nor bad, yet agree that more actors – from government and civil society – should be involved and that a more structured process of collaboration would be helpful. You are mildly positive about the commitments delivered, but do think important ones are missing.

You see OGP as a positive force in your country and – knowing the context and players best – are best equipped to generate change in your own country. The added value you expect me to bring is primarily access to experiences, cases and knowledge on issues of open government and on the OGP mechanism itself. In return you are very willing to support me and the Steering Committee in shaping OGP further, by giving advice, hosting interns, building communication platforms. But primarily by collecting and sharing your own knowledge, cases and experiences.

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