An Upward Climb: Five Years Chasing the Sun

July 25, 2017

Paul Maassen,

Five years ago to the day, I started working for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as “independent civil society coordinator.” It has been an incredible privilege to help shape OGP into a platform that really brings civil society to the heart of government. Through my work, I’ve had a front row seat to see civil society reality up close at the country level and – zooming out – to have a global snapshot of how OGP and civil society are doing. I’ve seen daily the innovations, the challenges, the steps forward and steps back, and now is a good moment to reflect on the journey so far.

My time at OGP informally started at the first ever OGP Global Summit in Brasilia in April 2012. I remember wondering then if I was making the right choice in leaving my position at World Wildlife Fund. No doubt, the OGP concept was (and still is) compelling in all its simplicity. It also provided the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest reformers globally, which was very appealing. And I really love being part of pioneering a new initiative – those first few months and years of turning ideas into reality are always pure magic.

High expectations

But I also realised that the expectations of OGP were very high, especially from civil society. Perhaps unrealistically so. Meeting them would ask for a fundamental change in doing government-as-usual, but equally in civil society doing advocacy-as-usual. That would not just take time, effort, and funding, but also commitment, skills, passion, open minds, and a willingness to dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, it would require stepping out of one’s comfort zone for all involved, including myself.

OGP has evolved significantly since that first meeting in Brasilia. In the early days, civil society primarily wanted to know how this OGP thing worked, and were often annoyed by the lack of answers. They felt governments were not taking their commitments to OGP seriously. To be fair, many of those governments were also struggling to figure out OGP.

Today, it’s safe to say that both civil society and government (should) know how OGP works and what is expected of them. As an institution, we have tried to continually raise the bar for countries and for ourselves in terms of the support we provide. After five years, most of the basics are covered, and many reforms have been delivered. There is now more space for strategic advocacy and a focus on delivering impactful reforms rather than on perfecting the process.

Serious threats to civic freedoms

Unfortunately, the wider geopolitical context in which this has happened hasn’t changed favourably. According to the new Civicus 2016 State of Civil Society Report, more than 100 countries are experiencing serious threats to one or more civic freedoms, and people challenging government’s vested interests are most likely to be targeted. That means six out of seven people in the world currently live in countries where civic space is undergoing serious challenges.

Inspiring examples despite unsettling times

Admittedly, these are unsettling times full of fear and frustration, even for an optimist like me. But what continues to give me hope are the many examples of how reformers continue to push through important changes in the face of skepticism and resistance. Here are a few inspiring examples I’ve seen over the past five years:

  • After an initial uproar when the Indonesian government handpicked civil society for the first round of OGP consultations, leading civil society groups stepped up and worked hard to restore interest and trust from the rest of civil society. They turned to thematic coalitions to prioritize asks, and collectively nominated group representatives to coordinate discussions with the government. As a sizable group of reformers representing a broad range of interests, their political leverage was substantially and effectively increased. I love this as a great example of civil society modifying their ‘advocacy-as-usual’ in order to achieve their objectives.
  • Civil society in the UK smartly used the media to put pressure on the government to finally act on beneficial ownership, a move welcomed by key civil servants who had been pushing for it internally within government.
  • Civil society in Germany, Nigeria, and elsewhere created their own draft Action Plans as an advocacy base to persuade their governments to join OGP. This also helped secure commitments to collectively work on progressing the domestic open government agenda once the government committed to joining OGP.
  • Civil society in Peru – and more recently, Mexico – have walked away from the OGP dialogue to publicly underscore their dissatisfaction with how OGP is playing out, both where it comes to the quality of (and trust in) the dialogue and the National Action Plan (NAP) negotiation. This is a smart advocacy tactic, to be used with care (and hopefully more as a pause than a real stop).
  • Situations when key government champions change offices or leave government all together remain one of the biggest risk factors for OGP and the continuity of reforms. Civil society in Argentina, the Philippines, the UK, and other places have used election campaign periods to influence political manifestos or organise presidential debates to secure commitments from candidates for the open government agenda.  Groups in Australia smartly used a political transition to widen the scope of the NAP to include some of their demands on issues that were entirely off the table before. 
  • I am continually impressed by how civil society groups regularly use the international spotlight provided by OGP events as platforms to push on domestic concerns. At the Europe Regional Meeting in Ireland, civil society raised the issue of Freedom of Information (FOI) fees. In Tanzania, civil society used the presence of the President to raise concerns around a set of critical laws relating to civic space. The Irish FOI fees were (mostly) dropped, and civil society in Tanzania was able to finally view the draft laws and successfully advocated for some changes.
  • Of course, there are limits to what civil society can achieve on its own. OGP can only work if there is at least some willingness for reform – and some champions within the corridors of power. Consequently, one of the things I am proudest of is our Response Policy, which has given OGP the needed teeth where it comes to civic space. Azerbaijan and Hungary were among the first countries I visited when I started in OGP. The difference between the two is the willingness to engage with OGP. That Hungary left is a loss for reformers across Hungary, but also demonstrates to me that the Response Policy is taken seriously.

Global trends toward more closed and more open societies

Since the early days, I have introduced OGP by talking about two global trends gaining momentum simultaneously: one for more closed society/government and one for more open. Clearly, OGP works to tip the balance in favour of openness. ‘Open’ hasn’t done badly at all. There are quite a few inspiring stories of success – across the board, more open contracting, more access to information laws, more participation experiments, and more insight into political lobby and campaigning.  But it’s too soon to celebrate, as ‘closed’ has clearly developed some serious muscles over the last few years. The capture of society’s resources and policy spaces by a privileged few and shrinking civic space are frighteningly normal concepts nowadays. In times like these, isolated pockets of reform will clearly not be good enough. To really tip the balance towards Open, we have to get serious about scale and focus of reforms. We must aim to build an open government agenda supported by a movement of millions.

So, what is next for me, for you, and for OGP?

In my humble opinion, we must solidify the basics; keep improving the OGP framework, and support structure. If the basics are good, it will be easier for all of you to make the national dialogues deeper and stronger, and the reforms bigger and better. This is why we are reviewing what we call the “Rules of the Game,” by which we mean how the Partnership works. To begin, we have developed new Co-creation Standards, and continue to push for better permanent dialogue mechanisms, which are core to OGP.  As the Mexican example shows, it is imperative that we keep the dialogue going and continue to build trust and iterate the fundamentals of participation and power sharing over time to maintain relevance. If access to power is easier outside OGP, then the relevance and value are partly lost. If the dialogue is not genuine, a tick-box approach only, the value is lost.

Bring citizens back into government

If we are really to tip the balance in favour of Open, to change the culture for government at scale and to restore trust, we will need to bring citizens back into government. This requires a strong focus on creating many more opportunities for direct citizen participation and government responsiveness on areas of society that citizens care about. At the global level, we are investing heavily in bringing strong players into OGP that are not traditional transparency and governance organisations (e.g. Oxfam, World Vision and others), and are slowly seeing their local nodes getting traction on key reforms in the countries they work in, connecting global and local agendas. These efforts need to be supplemented with more country-level grassroots organizations being brought into the conversations by existing OGP coalitions.

Get better at identifying and working with champions

We need to get smarter and better at identifying and working with champions wherever they might be. That’s why I am tempted to not define civil society, even though I am often asked to do so, and as often decline. Two reasons. First, working with civil society across the globe has taught me that there is not one clean definition of civil society possible that will do justice to every context. Second, I am not sure what being able to stick the label ‘genuine civil society’ on people or organisations would bring. It will not help us figure out if they are smart advocates, skilled actors, or passionate reformers. I have met government ministers that are equally if not more passionate and principled about reforming governments than several civil society leaders.

Working across traditional divides drives change

Perhaps more importantly, people wear different hats all the time. Not just over time – people moving from a role in civil society to government or the other way around – but also at any given time – civil servant during the day, civic activist at night or simultaneously running an NGO and being a local council member. Lines are becoming increasingly blurred. The rich diversity of experiences on the CVs of the last shortlist of OGP Steering Committee candidates and the increasing number of government officials we’re seeing with civil society backgrounds are cases in point.  For a platform that relies on open and honest dialogue, it helps if the people around the table understand each other’s’ perspectives, interest and language from having been there. It helps build those trust relationships that are especially needed in the rough patches of any OGP journey and in finding the common interests and priorities when it comes to reforming governance.

Working across traditional government and civil society divides (or indeed across divides within civil society) has also proven to be immensely useful in seizing political opportunities to drive through change when the right windows emerge.  For example, traditional civil society groups worked with youth activists in Guatemala to take their street protests to the OGP negotiation table to make their asks actionable, or the many cases of government reformers working closely with civil society to smartly turn roaring political speeches from their leaders at the global stage (the London Anti-Corruption Summit comes to mind as an example) into national OGP commitments.

Finding sincere political leadership a major challenge

One of our biggest challenges is in finding (and providing) sincere political leadership for this agenda. If those that have the power and influence don’t really want to open up or don’t use their passion to convince others, then nothing much will come of it – no matter how great our participation standards, or how strong our sticks. We have seen this with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with the 0.7% target for development aid. Words and signatures are easy, but it is action that counts.

Two steps forward and one step back

I am not naive. I know OGP hasn’t always delivered all we have hoped for, and am acutely aware of the uphill climb in addressing the challenges and priorities I’ve outlined above. I know it is hard work, often two steps forward and one step back. That getting the dialogue right is not easy, nor is keeping momentum. That funding is scarce. That political transitions are disruptive. That the most pressing reforms are not always prioritized, or delivered. That some of the people who are responsible for OGP really don’t care. And that sometimes it all falls apart and all you can do is walk away and – hopefully – start again.

We still have every reason to be optimistic

In this milestone year, for me personally at OGP, but more importantly for the open government movement, we all have a choice to make – we can give up, saying it’s just too hard, impossible even; or we can dig in further, not let the pushback, setbacks, and cynicism faze us and continue to forge collaborations to drive reforms, to fight closing spaces, and to address growing polarization and declining trust. Given the way our movement has been growing, even in these challenging times – with strong reformers popping up in both government and civil society – I believe we have every reason to be optimistic, and have full confidence in our collective ability to raise the bar for OGP to live up to its promise.

This blog post was first published on the OGP website.