London OGP Summit Will Be Coming Out Party for CSOs

25 October 2013

By Toby McIntosh

19 months ago in Brazil, at the first Open Government Partnership summit, 150 delegates from civil society organizations (CSOs) finally got together as a group, very late in day on the last day of the conference, tired and somewhat frustrated.

“Welcome to a work in progress,” began Warren Krafchik, the new OGP co-chair representing civil society. (See FreedomInfo.org report.)

When the second OGP summit convenes Oct. 31 in London, there will be about 1,000 non-government people registered, with about 700 representing CSOs. On the day before, some 440 CSO reps will hold their own pre-conference.

That “work in progress” has taken more tangible shape in the intervening months. The now 60 member countries launched into the process writing national action plans, so far making more than 1,000 open government commitments. In some countries, second plans are being prepared.

Some national self-assessments have been done and independent reviewers have examined the follow-through on eight action plans through the OGP”s Independent Reporting Mechanism.

The institutional focus has shifted from design to implementation.

The degree of civil society involvement has varied widely by country, but the wedge of opportunity seems to have excited interest, nationally and internationally. Intermediate results from a survey of CSOs indicate that 61% are more positive about the potential of OGP to deliver change than last year.

Freedominfo.org talked with more than a dozen OGP insiders about the upcoming meeting and reviewed the growing number of pre-meeting blog posts.

The commonly mentioned goals are:

–          getting better quality commitments in the next generation of action plans,

–         improving national consultations, and

–         taking on hotter, more politically sensitive topics.

The organizers are hoping, as one put it, that the meeting “generates excitement.” The goal is “to maintain the momentum,” another person said.

Although “we need much broader government buy in,” as one long-time OGP observer from the CSO community put it, there are no scheduled sessions for government to government interaction.

Two new countries may join during the summit, Sierra Leone and New Zealand. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

All 160 Freedominfo.org articles on the OGP over three years are here.

Dissecting a Packed Agenda

The London agenda is packed.

The two-days will feature plenary speeches, eight parallel sessions (about 50 in all), and voting to determine the most popular “Bright Spot.”

The London summit organizers have defined four general objectives:

Defending SPACE for Civil Society to Engage

Sharing INSPIRATION from across the Partnership

Ensuring ACCOUNTABILITY for Results

Promoting AMBITION

What will be going on?

This is a conference, not a meeting with motions and votes, so the outcomes may come in many forms:  ideas for the OGP Steering Council to consider, alliances formed, projects spawned and knowledge gained.

A few concrete developments may emerge from an OGP Steering Committee Oct. 29,  one topic on the agenda being the growing concern about preserving “civic space” in some countries. (The agenda and associated documents had not been posted Sept. 25.)

Here’s a dozen of areas that Freedominfo’s insiders said to watch, along with some early indications of what might happen.

What will the steering committee do to help defend the civic process in countries where it is being challenged? 

How will civil society organize to emerge as a stronger player in national OGP debates?

Is convergence growing within different segments of the civil society community?

Will there be support for the idea of an open government score card?

Will “inspiration” strike?

What will be the initial reviews of the IRM process?

How will the stretch goals be received?

What will the five new working groups do? 

What will be the impact of growing interest in tackling even more politically sensitive  “new frontier” areas, such as campaign finance, privacy, surveillance, and whistle-blowing?

How are OGP finances looking?

What governments will campaign to be on the steering committee?

What issues will Indonesia, the next “lead” co-chair, prioritize?

Concerns emerge about civic space

CSO co-chair Krafchik has laid down several suggestions for what the Steering Committee could do about attacks on free expression and repression of CSOs and nongovernmental organizations, observing, “We are seeing civil society voices being stifled even in countries that are promoting open government as part of OGP.” He is director of the International Budget Partnership.

“This is a reality check for OGP,” he wrote.

The most likely outcome will be the creation of a special working group on the issue by the Steering Committee when it meets in advance of the summit. (See Steering Committee agenda.)

Krafchik has proposed such a group and offered some options to explore. One proposal would be to increase the minimum OGP eligibility requirements and/or encourage members to achieve the full score. Another suggestion would be to establish “red lines” that would trigger diplomatic engagement and possibly suspension.

“This is not a discussion that can wait,” he stressed, but it is also a topic that has been troublesome for not only the steering committee, but also the CSO members in the past. The goals of attracting members and encouraging voluntary action have sometimes been at odds with calls for higher standards and for the Steering Committee to speak up when members appear to violate OGP principles.

Making the matter additionally touchy is that one of the countries where this trend is being observed is Indonesia, the OGP a co-chair that will assume the “lead” role, succeeding the UK.

What will civil society do to emerge as a stronger player in national OGP debates?

One OGP official hopes for “real discussions on how we can broaden/deepen the OG movement, sharing experiences of what worked and did not.”

“Sharing best practice and meeting global counterparts may sound abstract next to delivering ambitious commitments, but it is critical to the effective functioning of OGP,” wrote Joe Powell, deputy director of the OGP Support Unit.

The pre-summit meeting is expected to catalyze activity in a variety of ways. The draft agenda includes regional meetings, recognizing the OGP standard belief that success will be “domestically driven.”

Other sessions have titles such as: “Don’t Complain, Campaign” and “OGP ambition for the next 2 years.” There will be a simultaneous, freewheeling “unconference.”

CSOs now are assisted by the independent OGP civil society coordinator, Paul Maassen, his staff of three, a website, and a donations of about $600,000 from three foundations.

The coordinator has sought to stimulate cross-fertilization among national activists through the regional meetings and a variety of communication channels. National experiences are described in series of more than 15 articles on the OGP Civil Society Hub.

At the pre-summit conference, while most of the sessions are on open government policy issues, there are also sessions for beginner and about practical skills. One “interactive workshop” is designed “to coach participants on drafting high quality action plans.” Another session “will allow practitioners of open government from these countries to pitch their thoughts on high and low tech approaches.”

Is convergence growing within different segments of the civil society community?

“This is the first time where I think we really have a big, diverse group of CSOs coming to the summit, we didn’t really have that in Brazil,” commented one OGP official. He hopes that the CSOs will” begin to use that collective wisdom to make our mark in a bigger way on OGP process.”

“Open government groups and civil liberties campaigners sit on the same side of the fence in this case: this could be a powerful alliance,” wrote Martin Tisne recently. He is director of policy at Omidyar Network, a major OGP funder, and has served on the OGP steering committee,

But uniting dozens of related causes into a global transparency movement remains in the early stages, as does creating parallel cohesion in national settings.

Testimony on the difficulty of convening groups in the OGP context came in a report about the Kenyan experience, stating that “the OGP action-planning process has seen little in the way of leveraging and the coming together of the various stakeholders. Owing to these dynamics, coordination on OGP matters from both sides – government and civil society – has been frayed.”

Success in energizing national activists will benefit the OGP. As Krafchik said, “The bigger noise you make in country, the greater leverage you give us at the global level.”

On the other hand, there have been national OGP coalitions coalescing in many places. Croatia is often cited as an example. An article commissioned by the CSO coordinator describes an involved government working closely with CSOs there.

The national experiences were recently summarized by Maassen’s CSO unit. Variation in national governmental traditions was cited as a major influence. “Civil society involvement has been most meaningful and substantive when coordinated by a nominated agency or ‘driver’ that has the necessary skills, time and acceptability, and is looking beyond its own agenda,” according to conclusion about the processes.

The article concludes: “Ultimately, civil society needs to be much more knowledgeable about the issues. It must be proactive and well organised and must become much more professional when communicating with government.”

At the CSO conference, these types of lessons may get discussed at sessions such as one titled “Balancing CSO roles in Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives: watchdog and partner.”

One area of noted tension will get aired at the main summit. A session is scheduled on “the ways in which the RTI movement has interacted with the wider OGP movement and, in particular, the open data movement. The overall aim will be to explore ways better to develop the natural synergies between these two overlapping agendas, and to reduce tensions.”

The final hours of the CSO meeting are billed as “a dynamic session, where we create a buzz and pool the collective energy in preparation for the OGP Summit. To achieve this, the auditorium will be transformed into a ‘village square’.”

Will there be support for the idea of an open government score card?

A variety of ideas have been floated to grade national governments, something the OGP does not aspire to do.

Maassen has suggested creating a benchmark of ideal practice. “This would be a macro-approach, setting new levels of ambition for the broader concept of open government, triggering a race to the top by explicitly ranking countries and thus triggering their vanity and competitiveness.” (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

A panel at the recent Open Knowledge Foundation conference focused on a “Civil Society National OGP Review,” described as “a simple, reliable and transparent review methodology to be used by civil society in OGP member countries to assess both the quality and the ambition of both the consultation process and the resulting action plan.”

How will the “bright spots” play? 

The centerpiece in the inspiration department will be the showcasing of seven “bright spots” and a vote by participants to determine the  most popular.

The nominees are:

–         a project in Chile to simplify government to citizens by providing a one-stop shop for accessing public services,

–         a web-based platform in Estonia that allows ordinary citizens to propose policy solutions,

–         advocacy for FOI reforms in Georgia.

–         a social media channel where Indonesian citizens can submit complaints and enquiries about development programs,

–          a mobile app in Montenegro that allows citizens to report local problems,

–         the Citizen Participatory Audit project in the Philippines, and

–         a Romanian website set up to counter corruption and lack of transparency in civil service recruitment.

One wag commented, “I think they will contrast nicely to the political rhetoric – don’t quote me on that.”

There are other plans to demonstrate the value of open government.

The OGP Oct. 24 posted 10 “inspiring stories.” OGP Director Linda Frey in a blog post pointed to “a kaleidoscope of lessons.” She wrote: “We learned of champions within government whose persistent efforts led to breakthroughs in transparent governance.” Also: “Civil society advocates are also winning incremental, but important, victories.”

The “big goal,” as one U.S. official put it, is “how well we demonstrate proof of concept.”

New evidence suggests that the OGP’s public profile may be rather low. A global survey of journalists conducted by the OGP Media Council found that suggests most of them have never heard of the OGP.

Will the IRM process get good reviews?

The reports by the Independent Reporting Mechanism’s reviewers about the how well the eight founding countries did in implementing their action plans will be discussed at the meeting — two countries per 75 minute session. So far the  comments on them have been trickling in, since they have some out only in recent weeks, but most appear to be favorable.

A related session will be a “dialogue between past and current IRM researchers with an opportunity to ask IRM researchers questions.”

OGP insiders agree it is critical to get the accountability system right. About three dozen reviewers are now at work on the action plans by “cohort two” countries.

One government official closely involved in the process said she hopes that the meeting will show “how the IRM mechanism is a valid worthwhile credible entity.”

Krafchik said, “If the IRM doesn’t prove to be meaty, meaningful … credible. Then we have to reassess.”

How will the stretch goals play?

The United Kingdom, as OGP chair, asked each member country to come to London with one “stretch” goal.

A widely held view among OGP officials is that most national action plans have lacked “ambition.” Hence the stretch goals assignment.

The homework will be announced over the two days of the summit and summarized in a communique to be launched on day two.

Now is the time “for there to be a renewed stress on the quality of the action plans,” commented one nongovernment organization leader long involved with the OGP.

One concern among OGP planners and outside groups is whether the OGP process can help address so-called thorny issues involving fundamental questions of power, such as money in politics. The stretch goals may give some indication about how much exercise governments want to engage in.

Adding to the mix on good commitment targets, the Technology and Accountability Initiative will announce a second and expanded edition of its “Guide to Opening Government,” which will provide a catalogue of ideas in dozens of open government areas, including some new ones, such as records management.

Will the five new working groups help, and how? 

Too early to tell.

The OGP has formed five thematic working groups: on access to information, fiscal openness, open data, legislative openness and extractives. (See previous Freedominfo.org report.)

The stated goal is “to support the creation and implementation of more ambitious open government commitments as part of OGP national action plans.” The working groups are open to all interested participants and co-led by at least one civil society organization and at least one OGP government.

The effort amounts to a second iteration of an earlier “peer learning” program regarded as less than successful. Looking ahead, the OGP may hire an “outreach” staff person to facilitate governmental interaction.

The working groups are in the early stages of developing goals and agendas.They will hold one or more meetings at the summit.

A related and emerging topic is a growing interest in reaching out beyond to organizations that don’t have open government as a major focus in order to broaden the OGP constituency.

The United States is developing a program to assist in the bringing more different kinds of groups, such as those concerned mainly with health, education and the environment, into the OGP circle.

At the summit there will be an announcement of the creation of an ad hoc working group on private sector involvement. (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.)

What will be the impact of the growing interest in tackling more politically sensitive, “new frontier,” areas, such as campaign finance, privacy, surveillance, national security and whistle-blowing?

These are only a few of the possible controversial areas that fit under the open government umbrella.

The Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich wrote to encourage attention to “fundamental questions of power, like military and state power, or money in politics” while cautioning that: “political reality has shown us that the openness we are demanding from modern democracies has rarely developed through the good will of officials who hold power.”

OGP deputy director Powell wrote, “It is important that the relatively low-hanging fruit of publishing datasets is built on to include more ambitious targets, which will require political leadership and cross-government reform.”

Sessions on privacy and whistleblowing are purposely designed as one official said, to “take OGP out of its comfort zone.”

Where it will go remains to be seen. At a meeting of UK civil society organizations, one proposal was “making these areas of potential conflict explicit by creating a specific track for `thorny issues,’ “ reported Javier Ruiz, a campaigner at the Open Rights Group.

Krafchik, speaking Oct. 23 at an Open Gov Hub event in Washington, commented that “open government is contested terrain.” He said, “The role of the OGP is to try and tip the balance in that contested terrain.”

Other possible stretch topics, some of which will come up at the summit include extending the effort to other levels of government: supranational (EU), state and local, judicial and legislative branches, etc.

How are OGP finances looking?

The OGP this year has moved to pressure member governments to pony up.  So far, there are few signs this is working, though getting such allocations through national budget processes is often slow.

According to the OGP budget, contributions have been received in 2013 from the United Kingdom, $452,832; Norway, $213,000; South Africa, $150,000; the Philippines, $100,000.  The 2012 contributions were: United States, $200,000; Norway, $187,000; United Kingdom, $100,000; and the Philippines, $50,000. Brazil is listed as having spent $705,000 on the Brasilia 2012 summit.

Governments serving on the Steering Committee were required to contribute annually to support the core operations of OGP. In July the Steering Committee decided to make it mandatory for other members to contribute on a sliding scale, with details to be presented at the meeting preceding the London Summit. (See previous FreedomInfo,org report.) The OGP get more than half of its support from foundtions.

The OGP is facing higher costs as the IRM process develops. The 2013 budget is for $2.57 million. It has perennially operated with what is usually called a “lean” four-person “Support Unit.”

Operations are supplemented by officials from the Steering Committee members, especially the lead co-chair.

What governments will campaign to be on the steering committee?

Elections are on the way, eventually.

Figuring out how to transition the Steering Committee, now composed mostly of OGP founding members, equally from governments and civil society, to a new rotation system has proven troublesome, especially on the government side. The original plan envisioned having incumbents offer to step aside, but no one stepped forward.

Since then plans for elections among government members have not been finalized. The OGP Steering Committee has proposed several revisions to the Articles of Governance.  The Steering Committee quietly opened a 30-day public comment period on proposed revisions on Oct. 21 which will close on Nov. 21.

One of the changes says:  “In 2014, the first time government members will rotate, there will be a special election in which governments will join for staggered one, two and three year terms to ensure regular annual rotation from 2015 onwards.”

On the civil society side, where three new members replaced original members earlier this year, Krafchik will step down and Rakesh Rajani will succeed him as lead civil society co-chair. Suneeta Kaimal will succeed Rajani as support co-chair. head of Twaweza East Africa. Suneeta is the Deputy-Director of the Revenue Watch Institute.

What issues will Indonesia, the next “lead” co-chair prioritize?

No hints so far, according to those interviewed.

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