A debate is brewing at the United Nations over how and whether to include open government principles in the post-Millennium Development Goals agreement. Governance indicators – either in a standalone goal or embedded in other goals – were notably absent from the first MDGs, but popular citizen demand for greater accountability from their leaders is overwhelming. Domestic reformers in governments are also winning the argument, with the Open Government Partnership now 63 countries strong. Those countries have made over 1000 open government reform commitments between them.
These 63 OGP countries are not the usual suspects associated with advocating the good governance mantra at the UN. Indonesia and Mexico are currently co-chairing OGP and have both expressed strong political support for transparency, accountability and participation, while also walking the talk nationally. Indeed, the majority of OGP Steering Committee government members are low or middle-income countries. This increased the impact of their letter last year to the UN Secretary-General calling for ‘strong institutions and governments that are more open and accountable to citizens’, and endorsing the High Level Panel report chaired by the leaders of Liberia, Indonesia and the UK.
The OGP model provides some valuable lessons for negotiators of the post-2015 UN agreement. First, it is universal. The old rules of North-South, East-West and developed-developing divides do not apply. Innovation and best practice are coming from a geographically and economically diverse group of countries, all eager to learn from each other. This includes civil society, who have an equal seat at the table in OGP at the international level, and increasingly in national-level OGP processes too.
The relationship between national level open government reform commitments, and international principles, is also instructive. Every OGP participating country must sign up to the same Open Government Declaration, which includes pledges to increase access to information, protect space for civil society to operate and uphold integrity in public offices. These broad principles are then translated into national action plans, which reflect country priorities and are co-created with civil society. This represents a strong central vision being flexibly implemented, therefore increasing domestic buy-in and sustainability. Finally, OGP has an innovative accountability mechanism, which combines commitment-by-commitment analysis on implementation with recommendations on how to improve the consultation and dialogue with citizens.
The relevance of the OGP experience is clear. The framework shows that it’s possible for a group of countries to make commitments on a core set of universal governance issues, and then implement additional reforms that are appropriate to the national circumstances. Similarly, if a ‘data revolution’ is going to take hold to better measure and monitor development, then the practical commitments OGP countries are making will be helpful. These have included increasing budget transparency, modernising record management systems, improving access to information procedures and increasing the supply of data available on financial flows. The political momentum generated by OGP will also be important. Linking up Country Missions to the UN in New York with domestic teams implementing open government reforms in the capitals is an important first step. Then with Indonesia and Mexico committed to leading the charge, it should be time for cautious optimism on what the OGP collective can inspire in the world’s future universal development goals.
Joe Powell is Deputy Director of the Open Government Partnership Support Unit