OGP Leaders Decide Against Reacting to National Issues

23 February 2013

The Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership will only comment on national controversies in several defined “exceptional circumstances,” according to a Feb. 21 statement.

The two-page statement comes in the wake of a request that the Steering Committee “signal” disappointment that the Philippines, a Steering Committee member, failed to pass freedom of information legislation. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

“The primary mandate of the Steering Committee is to advance the overall principles and values of the global partnership, rather than to engage in country level debates or adjudicate concerns related to individual countries. This also allows the Steering Committee to more effectively fulfill its strategic and policymaking mandate,” says the two-page statement posted on the OGP website.

There was no indication that the request might trigger a comment from the nine members of the Steering Committee who represent civil society. In the only other analogous situation, concerning the “secrecy bill” in South Africa, the civil society members issued a statement of concern about the controversial bill. South Africa also is a member of the OGP Steering Committee.

Clarification Issued

The new “Clarification” makes it unlikely that the Steering Committee can be used by national groups as a pressure point in specific situations. The Steering Committee said it will resist such entreaties. Committee action would be necessary  in the event that a member country falls below the minimum criteria for membership or fails carry out its national plan, according to the statement. The policies for both circumstances have been spelled out in previous policies.

Rationale Explained

The Steering Committee statement says the OGP “views governments as primarily accountable to their own citizens. Therefore concerns with respect to a particular country are first and foremost a matter to be addressed through national processes, empowering local actors to pursue these debates and necessary actions.”

It goes on to point out that the OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) “is set up to objectively assess each country’s progress in achieving its OGP commitments.” The statement continues: “The Steering Committee seeks to respect the IRM process and timeline, which includes opportunities for public review and comment on IRM reports. Once published, the IRM reports may be used by governments, civil society and other actors to inform debate at the country-level.”

The review process is just getting under way. The first self assessments, to be done by the founding eight OGP member countries, including the Philippines, are due at the end of March.

The draft self-assessments are supposed to be made public for a two week period of public comment, but so far no such processes have been announced.

The Philippines government responded to the criticisms sent to the OGP, saying the FOI law is still a goal, but was made a lower priority in the just-concluded congressional session. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The Steering Committee said that its reluctance to get involved in country-level debate reflects a “primary mandate” of advancing “the overall principles and values of the global partnership.”

Special Circumstances

The Steering Committee could get involved if a participating government falls below the minimum OGP eligibility criteria.

In this case, “said government should take immediate and explicit steps to address issues so that it passes the threshold within one year. Failure to do so will trigger review of the participation of said government in the OGP by the Steering Committee upon recommendation of the Criteria and Standards subcommittee.”

A country’s membership could be revoked under OGP rules, but in the interest of encouraging positive results, the Steering Committee has made that option remote.

If a participating government “repeatedly (for 3 consecutive years) acts contrary to the OGP process and to itsAction Plan commitments, fails to adequately address issues raised by theIRM, or is taking actions that undermine the values and principles of OGP, the Steering Committee may, upon recommendation of the Criteria and Standards sub-committee, review the participation of said government in the OGP,” the statement recaps.

Election Impact Possible

The statement notes that “country-level performance is certainly one of the factors considered by the Steering Committee in relation to the (re-) election of Steering Committee members.”

This point may have some relevance to the Philippines, which is one of the countries mentioned as likely to step off the Steering Committee this year.

There have been long-standing plans for existing Steering Committee members to relinquish their posts in a staged way in order to transition to a fully elected committee. Three are to leave this year. Norway volunteered to drop off, but two other candidates are needed and internal controversy has resulted. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The Philippines had indicated a willingness to step down, FreedomInfo.org has reported, but later reversed its position. Little official information on the situation has emerged, but a reference to the controversy in the minutes of the December Steering Committee revealed, without givng names, that South Africa balked about rotating off because the Philippines was being encouraged to remain on. Behind-the-scenes efforts to resolve the situation are reportedly under way. The Steering Committee meets next in April.

Finally, the statement says: “In addition, individual Steering Committee members can and do engage in bilateral conversations with government officials and/or civil society leaders in countries that are encountering particular challenges in the implementation of their OGP action plans, in order to offer support.”

CSO Chairman Comments

Warren Krafchik, the co-chairman of the OGP representing the nine civil society members, responded to a FreedomInfo.org inquiry regarding the CSO members’ view of the request reqarding the Philippines.

He responded:

I think the whole SC is behind OGP’s emphasis on strengthening domestic accountability. The CSOs on the SC will however still retain the capacity to respond separately from the full SC, when appropriate. This option is included at the bottom of the clarified policy that the SU put out.

I personally think the South Africa case is different to the Philippines. In South Africa, the concern was that the particular piece of legislation might constitute backtracking against OGP’s threshold criteria.  In the case of Philippine’s, the issue is whether the government has completed its OGP commitment satisfactorily – and this is a question for the IRM to determine. The CSOs on the SC are therefore not issuing a separate statement at this time.


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