I’ve been in Brasilia this week for at meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a new international initiative now involving 55 governments and run by a joint government and civil society steering committee, to secure state commitments to promoting transparency, empowering citizens, fighting corruption, and harnessing new technologies to strengthen governance. Unfortunately, new technologies and WiFi access were a little lacking at the conference venue on the first day, so I’m only now getting to blog some of the notes and reflections I jotted down during the event. I’ve tried to use ” quotes for “near verbatim” quotes (some via the translators), and ‘for paraphrases’ on elements that jumped out at me from different presentations.
The morning opened with presentations from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Nika Gilauri, President of Georgia, Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanazania and Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, discussing their commitments to open government.
Hilary Clinton’s speech highlighted that 1/4 of the worlds people now live in countries which have joined the OGP, ‘each of which has outlined concrete, credible steps, to open government’, although noting that it is ‘not enough to assert we will be committed to openness, we have to deliver on the commitments we have made’. Hilary’s speech also set out a belief that the biggest divisions between states in future will not be on geographic, wealth or religious lines, but will be concerned with openness: “those societies that believe they can be closed to change, closed to beliefs and ideas different from theirs, will find that in our Internet world they will be quickly left behind.”. This focus on technologically driven change was an explicit strand in both Clinton’s speech, and much of the OGP discourse, although the speech also ended with a recognition that ‘new tools of the digital age will not change human nature, only we can do that’.
Nika Gilauri’s speech opened with an inspiring claim: ‘I truly believe that open government initiative and partnership can leave poverty behind’. The logic is that challenging corruption can lead to governments using resources more efficiently and effectively. The rest of Nika’s speech focussed on the impacts of ‘open government’ reforms on Georgia, where a drive to address corruption has seen the figures for the number of Georgians who paid a bribe in the last 12 months drop to 4%, from a high of 95%. Nika highlighted that the reforms ‘destroy the myth that corruption is cultural, and give hope to other countries’ where corruption appears entrenched. Key to explore in any of the claims made for the effects of open government is how specifically ‘open government’ policies, like promoting transparency or increasing citizen access to decision making mechanisms, have interacted with legal instruments and enforcement measures in anti-corruption. I don’t know the Georgia context, but Nika’s speech for me highlighted that we need to look in depth at understanding the effect openness has, and the wider contextual factors (good and bad) that enable it to drive change.
Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania covered a range of important aspects of developing open government, from promoting press freedom, to parliamentary strengthening. Open government is not only about developing new institutions and structures, but also about reforming existing parts of our democratic systems. Jakaya noted that the Tanzania OGP Action Plan has prioritised local government – looking at basic education, health and water supply, on the grounds that these are most relevant to citizens. The claim ‘getting information on local services is more important than information on complex policy arrangements’ is one that sparked a lot of discussion in the research workshop IDRC convened just before the OGP, so it was interesting to see this claim being made in the opening speeches.
The final opening speech was from Dilma Rousseff who described a range of ways the Brazilian government have been promoting transparency, including introducing a new Access to Information Law, and developing specific transparency portals to cover specific areas such as spending on the World Cup (just across from the conference venue we could see many cranes building a new stadium in Brasilia to host the World Cup) and Olympics. The opportunities for engagement in open government via sports etc. (and the missed opportunity for a UK Olympics transparency portal) are interesting to consider. Dilma also draw attention to the financial sector: ‘in the absence of monitoring, international financial flows become subject to manipulation -with consequent losses for the world economy’, an input that was undoubtedly well received by Chris Taggart of Open Corporates who has been advocating hard for governments to prioritise the transparency of company information. Dilma’s speech also focussed on developing new channels for public participation, from national policy conferences to online engagement processes and public comment periods for new laws, a theme that was overall fairly underdeveloped in most of the OGP sessions I saw.
In the afternoon, countries were presenting their National Action Plans, making commitments that they will deliver as part of the OGP process. I was involved in inputting into a civil society assessment of the UK’s National Action Plan just before OGP, so was keen to see what would be said about it. I’ve blogged more on that over the UK Civil Society OGP blog, but essentially I took away from the session (and other sessions where I heard UK Director of Transparency Tim Kelsey speaking) a real concern that the current framing of open government from the UK Government is (a) very narrowly focussed on open data measures, and (b) as Jo Bates points out in her excellent paper, potentially a co-option of an open government and open data agenda in the interests of a reduced and marketised state: a policy agenda that our last election suggests does not have a popular electoral mandate. I hope my fears on (b) are misplaced, and that the commitment made in that session to a review of the action plan creates space to broaden the UK agenda and commitments as part of the OGP, but I suspect there is a lot of work still to do to support a constructive critical assessment of domestic UK open government.
I’ll post a few key learning take-aways from the whole meeting shortly, but in terms of overall impressions: there were some powerful and inspiring stories of the move towards open government from many countries, including from Omar Abdulkarim, Deputy Prime Minister of Libya, and Ben Abbes, Secretary of State of Tunisia and from a global perspective, building a forum to work out new models of open governance, and to do that through a partnership of civil society and elected governments is an incredibly exciting process to be starting. The meeting format in Brasilia didn’t necessarily make the most of opportunities for ‘open space’ discussions between civil society and governments in a constructive form, collectively addressing contemporary challenges of governance, but the very bringing together of people created the space for many great conversations to happen. Brasilia 2012 was just the start of many of the conversations, and the future of the OGP I suspect will depend on how they can develop and be sustained over the coming year…