#OGP15: Is ‘Open Government’ really open?

October 23, 2015

From 27 to 29 October 2015, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) holds its global summit in Mexico.

National governments and representatives from civil society, NGOs, media and research organisations will meet to discuss ‘how openness can improve public services, realise rights, drive economic growth, reduce poverty and make governments more accountable to the people they serve.’

But one of the key challenges for the OGP remains its ability to ensure ‘openness’ does not become a tick-box or ‘open wash’ exercise – where handshakes and national plans replace making governments open both to sharing information and to being critiqued by an informed public.

Hivos and Making All Voices Count will be at the Summit with partners from South Africa, Kenya, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and five countries in South America, looking at how open these government commitments actually are. We will together host three sessions at the Summit:

What does openness look like at OGP?

Mostly, opening up information. Right to Information laws, and publication of data on spending and budget planning, are a common thread to countries’ action plans. Open data is the third most popular topic in OGP action plans.

These commitments from national governments are valuable. But they are by no means the whole story, and there are many organisations asking searching questions about how valuable ‘openness’ commitments can be without a change in the wider context.

Who gets a say in what goes into these commitments? How are they prioritised? Are commitments clear – and most importantly, how can we hold our governments to the promises they made?

Too often, we conflate openness with provision of information, or with the thinking that if everyone knows what government commitments are, or if budgets and datasets are published online, then that’s a commitment fulfilled.

That assumption is being challenged by non-governmental organisations, and by the OGP’s own Independent Reporting Mechanism.

Let’s start with asking:

  1. What are you publishing? Do people care – who is asking for this information? / Is it in a format people can understand? (see the OGP Explorer…)

  2. Where are you publishing it? Who has access? Let’s be clear: the internet does not operate in universally accessible languages, nor is everyone actually able to afford, or get access.

  3. Does this information actually help people improve people’s lives, or is it just PR so governments and organisations can say they are open and get an international pat on the back?

Will all this ‘openness’ actually change things?

Huge organisations, processes and agreements often feel distant from what’s actually happening on the ground.

The summit in Mexico will be discussing how OGP relates to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and many lessons about openness and inclusion can be applied to both.

Last month, in a Guardian online debate, Danny Sriskandarajah from CIVICUS commented that “many of the activists I meet at the national level do not know about, let alone care about the SDGs.”

Tobias Troll from CONCORD added “I don’t understand that obsession that people should know what the SDGs are. We had the same thing with the MDGs: Lots of awareness raising around the goals, what they are, etc. But what people are interested in is not an institutional agenda or set off goals, but to have meaningful conversations on the world they want, and how they would like to see their values and beliefs reflected in how society and the world function.”

Knowing what something is, whether the SDGs, OGP national commitments or your local school’s budget, is not the same as being included in the process of shaping it.

It’s the same with governments’ commitments to openness.

We need to first re-define openness, and then see it as a tool to achieve change – not as an end in itself.

Openness should mean that government plans are shaped not just by politicians, but be genuinely representative of a country. It should mean that huge datasets are not published without thinking about who can actually understand them. It should mean publishing not just the ‘safe’ information, but also information that can be used to actually track what government is doing, spending and achieving on behalf of its citizens.

It should mean that governments are open to change, to new ideas and criticism. That’s when openness really can be meaningful, and that’s what we’ll be looking for next week in Mexico.