OGP: Progress and Challenges

By Jared Ford | July 06, 2012

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cloak of secrecy

As a part of our series on  last month’s Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York, I’m reflecting on a discussion of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Discussants included Caroline Mauldin, Juan Pardinas, John Wonderlich, and was moderated by David Eaves.
As we’ve covered before on this blog, OGP is an international mechanism which gets governments to make public commitments in national action plans to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. NDI’s Governance team participated in the Annual Meeting, NDI’s Elections team contributed to a publication on electoral transparency, the NDITech team has been advocating their work at a number of events, and NDI country teams have worked with member governments on their plans. Our team’s contributions to technology for openness and transparency in strengthening governance beyond country programs, also includes working on a CSO Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.

“Couples Therapy” for civil society and governments

Referenced frequently, the analogy of couples therapy helps to describe the process by which government and civil society relations are being redefined under OGP. In bringing diverse stakeholders to the table, the mechanism is providing opportunities for productive dialogue. Pardinas described the Mexican scenario as a success story, invoking a relationship status change from "its complicated" to "happily married".  Previous attempts at a national transparency action plan lacked civil society involvement and minimal specificity.  Due to OGP expectations, another planning process was launched wherein all parties were treated as equal partners with the common aim of improving transparency and accountability. He believes that the new approach is reflected in the quality of the current action plan. Participants at the annual meeting in Brasilia emphasized that replicating the type of dialogue at the steering committee level between civil society and government representatives was key to further accomplishments in all the 55 countries with action plans.

As a counterpoint, the Croatian government’s action plan was raised as one that did not consult with civil society, where no new commitments were developed, and instead steps were reflective of the pre- existing requirements for EU accession.

Tensions & Incentives

It’s important to recognize (without letting the internal cynic take over) that the OGP process is littered with inherent threats.

1) Political Actors - What is the value of a commitment made by the head of state? As a design and process typically initiated by foreign ministries, the OGP plan is temporary, non-binding, and dependent on regimes committed to working with internal ministries and the national legislature. Given the potential for changing political leadership and coalitions, these policy statements could disappear (or be reinforced) in the short term.

2) Enforcement - Currently the commitments are entirely aspirational with no enforcement mechanism agreed. OGP will need to develop a process by which these commitments are measured. At times, making no concrete changes to practice at all may be spun as meeting commitments. Under problematic scenarios, the action plan serves as a positive public relations outcome with no any significant change. Concrete steps are being taken by CSOs regarding review mechanisms.  For example, Global Integrity has done a full review of the action plans.

3) Comprehensiveness – The current plans are not meant to be comprehensive. Politicians get to choose what they want to focus on, and commitments need to be meaningful. As an umbrella framework, there are many themes that can be the focus of the plan. Of 250 commitments, they averaged out to have 50% on public integrity and 30% on public services.

4) Civil society driven - Currently the primary direction for dialogue is from government to citizens. However, more integrated approaches are being developed that would include civil society in setting the guidelines, rather than following government recommendations. In addition, how does a country decide who speaks for civil society? Is there a place for global standards developed by civil society?

The greatest strength at this point of the process is that norms are being developed for policy and practice which can then be used as a carrot or stick by activists and CSO's for improved transparency and accountability.  A great case in point may be the current debate over a secrecy law in South Africa, an OGP Steering Committee member. A vibrant domestic civil society is mobilizing against the bill, and the OGP process may be having a helpful impact.