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Tipping balance towards openness - ITREALMS

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When I started at OGP 10 years ago, I could not have imagined where OGP, the community, and the world would be now. Back in 2012, I was excited by the simplicity and energy of the original idea of OGP: Creating space for civil society leaders to work on an equal footing with reformers inside government, to jointly push for domestically relevant reforms that would make government work better for and with the people.
Paul Maassen of OGP

By 2017, I was excited to see the OGP approach starting to work. Plans got better, the community grew, OGP mechanisms were refined, and reforms were delivered. In our strategic refresh, we made some bold, exciting choices, like investing in public service delivery, prioritizing citizen engagement, and exploring what open government could look like at the local level and in parliament and in the justice sector.

Now, in 2022, we have proof of concept. We have shown that changing the culture of government is possible and valuable. We have thousands of inspiring examples. Collectively, we have built the mind and the muscle to scale and tackle the big challenges ahead of us. Ten years into my time with OGP, I want to share with you my perspectives on what worked, what hasn’t, and what is next through the lens of OGP’s big promises and pitches.

Tipping the balance in favor of openness

In my time at OGP, I’ve seen our community grow, deliver thousands of reforms, and convince countless political leaders to support the open gov agenda. We’ve advanced old and new topics and norms and standards, captured and shared inspiration, engaged local governments, and built thematic coalitions. At the same time, the forces opposing openness and inclusion have also advanced strongly. The balance hasn’t been tipped in favor of openness yet, even though ‘Team Open’ has made enormous progress and is showing pockets of success.

In our first decade, among our national members, six have expanded, seven maintained, and the rest diminished civil liberties. Governments are closing a bit faster than they are opening up. Still, I am inspired daily by how smart reformers keep finding new angles to use the space OGP creates to push back and keep moving forward.

The open data and access to information space is particularly impressive. Transparency has always been the most popular of the OGP values seen in commitments. In the early days, opening up government-held information ran under the motto ‘more is better’, especially when it came to open data. Uptake and usability were of lesser concern. Now we see a strong push for proactive disclosure, online and free of charge, regularly updated, openly licensed, and in a machine readable format. The community is creating a patchwork of policies, approaches, and reforms that collectively lifts access to information to the next level. In ten years, the community has grown stronger and more specific.

The number of commitments dealing with participation, OGP’s second core value, has steadily grown, making participatory and deliberative elements of democracy a more frequent part of government decision making processes.

Unfortunately, the third OGP value, accountability, is declining in emphasis, threatening the sustainability of reforms. Going forward, we need to keep advancing all three, raising the bar, and giving an extra push on accountability reforms.
Opening up government-held information is a key element in allowing public input and oversight, which brings me to one of OGP’s early tenets: Governments are much more likely to be effective and credible if they open their doors to public input and oversight (Four-Year Strategy 2015-2018). This insight is backed up by convincing evidence: Social audits are linked to more effective service provision and higher citizen trust, participatory budgeting is linked to more effective tax collection and tax morale, and CSO monitoring of contracts is linked to more cost-effective public works and services. We also know that when citizens are involved in shaping regulations, regulations are viewed as more legitimate and see higher compliance. In places like Armenia and the Republic of Korea, we’ve seen how politicians coming in on a wave of discontent can gain citizen trust and advance their reform agendas through OGP. However, despite the evidence of these specific interventions showing significant results, the rewards for investing in citizen-centered government and good reforms take time, so the fast food appeal of populistic promises can be more enticing to citizens.


Good ideas come from everywhere

One of the leading principles of OGP is that good ideas can come from everywhere. So Mexico can learn from Malawi and Norway can learn from Nigeria. Ideas from everywhere need to be followed by relevant actions on the ground, and OGP brings that unique value through domestic action plans. After ten years, we know it works and resonates. We definitely should innovate around what action looks like – like we did with OGP Local – but always keep it at our core. The last thing the world needs is another talk shop.

That original design principle of cross-fertilization of ideas across the globe is one of our strongest successes. OGP responds to global trends, including the development of new thinking. No country or region has a monopoly on best practices in open government, we all have something to share and learn. That’s why OGP emphasizes and facilitates peer support and inspiration. Seeing eyes light up when reformers realize someone on the other side of the world holds a piece to their puzzle is one of the most rewarding parts of our work. We’ve seen this in peer exchanges between Italy and South Africa on opening up government spending and citizen monitoring, Senegal and Canada on justice reforms, and Georgia and Mexico on freedom of information. The strongest examples go global and move beyond the G7/global north bias, such as the success stories of ProZorro/DoZorro (Ukraine) or of the Decide Madrid participation platform, which has been replicated across many of our members. I will never forget how the community – from Georgia to North Macedonia to Canada – worked tirelessly and jointly to get some of their Afghan peers and their families to safety and on to a new life.

Creating space for reformers and giving civil society a seat at the table

One of our strongest achievements is creating space and recognition for the reformers at the heart of our community. On the government side, the requirements and expectations that come with OGP help enforce delivery, create opportunities for political access, and give leverage to bring in other parts of government. Over time, we have seen less turn-over in the lead OGP office, an aspect of institutionalization that is associated with stronger early results.

On the civil society side, the dialogue and co-creation requirements have led to more inclusive processes and a steady improvement in the existence and quality of the permanent dialogue platforms (MSFs). Survey results over the years show that roughly two thirds of civil society respondents believe the action plan matches a majority or all of civil society’s priorities.

We asked civil society last year what value proposition resonates most when they speak to others about open government. Their number one answer was that OGP gives them a seat at the table for their advocacy priorities. In my ten years, I have seen this seat become more influential and more permanent. OGP has also managed to showcase what government and civil society working together looks like. Not just around co-creation but also implementation. The latest findings from our Vital Signs report prove that if government and civil society work together, you get more ambitious commitments that show better early results.

Summits, peer exchanges, awards give visibility to specific reform agendas and they create political backing, and a space for the reformers themselves. Connecting reformers in government to their peers in other countries is an important element. Civil society is often well connected, but it is more rare for bureaucrats. OGP helps grow coalitions on topics like beneficial ownership and democratic freedoms and connects communities nationally and thematically that often were siloed before.

I have always felt that the OGP process itself is not the right place to directly engage citizens and there are few instances where they have been directly involved in OGP co-creation. The policies and reforms that flow from OGP on the other hand often create broader opportunities for citizens shaping and overseeing policies, working with governments, and engaging meaningfully. We see this in this recent story from Ukraine, in the well-known Kaduna “Eyes and Ears” example, and in Ireland when a citizens’ assembly helped to break years of political deadlock around abortion.

The antidote to populistic promises is directly improving citizens’ lives. Citizens meet governments much more directly and concretely at the local level. And the appetite is there, with our local program scaling from 20 to 106 members in only two years. Whatever the OGP’s future looks like, open local government will have to be a core path to bigger impact. That’s where OGP can best create convincing spaces for citizens to be involved in decision making.

Democracy beyond the ballot box

“Democracy beyond the ballot box” is one of my personal favorite ways of describing OGP. It summarizes both the challenges and the opportunities and what open government is all about. Democracy is more than policies, institutions, and election cycles. It is about active citizenship, honest dialogue, and two-way trust between governments and people. A system in which citizens have a real say in how their society is run and what choices are made, not once every four to five years, but daily. Again I see progress, even against a backdrop of continuous democratic decline and decreasing levels of trust.

Much of the energy and momentum of the early days came from a positive can-do excitement around open government. I believe we have to move away from process compliance and punitive structures towards that energy and optimism. A focus on inspiration and innovation and on building an infrastructure and community of connections and energy can clear a path to a more sustainable and positive future amidst a tide of bleak news.

Changing the culture of government

Collectively, we can’t claim to have changed the culture of government, certainly not at scale and not across all our members. Giving civil society – let alone citizens – an equal seat at the table is still not common practice. Yet we have powerfully demonstrated that it is possible and effective.

One clear area of success and scale can be found in our campaigns. At the global level, they inspire and set the tone for action. At the national level, impact comes with a delay, but it comes. We saw Break the Roles bring new actors to the table and increase gender and inclusion commitments. Open Response + Open Recovery gave us hope and ways to address the challenges posed by the pandemic through open government.

Conclusion

In 2011, OGP was the right idea at the right moment. It created energy, connected people, and innovated domestic and international collaboration After years of hard work, the beginning of change is there. We have proof of concept, not of scale.

In my view, our ambition should continue to be making societies, democracies stronger, making them deliver better for and with citizens through open government. Open government as a concept, as an approach is as relevant as when I joined ten years ago. Open government to fight corruption; Open government to strengthen public services; Open government to address inclusion and inequality; Open government to address climate change; Open government to reimagine democracy. During the pandemic, we figured out how open government approaches could help curb the pandemic and approach the recovery. In Ukraine, open government thinking is brought into early planning for the rebuilding of the country.

Creating a noticeable difference at scale is our number one challenge for the future. As we develop a new strategy for the five years ahead, I see four promising paths to impact.Grow, connecti and recognize reformers by investing in their skills and capacity and providing support and inspiration.
Continue to bring in new branches, offices and levels of government and especially growing open government at the local level, where citizens are closest to government and where trust and lived realities can more easily be improved;
Keep a broad thematic agenda, acknowledging different contexts and needs. At the same time, become more explicit about expected ambition and progress on select core open government topics.
Shape and share value propositions and examples that are so powerful that open government becomes unavoidable for politicians.

If in ten years from now we want to have decisively tipped the balance in favor of openness, inclusion, participation – in favor of open government – we will need to grow our community, appeal and impact. Our starting point for that is incredibly strong. The last decade we have created an impressive collection of strengths, tactics, innovations, connections and experiences to convince skeptics and tackle challenges.
*Contributed by Chief, Country Support, Open Government Partnership, Belgium, Paul Maasen,

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