Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Three months from now 47 of the 63 countries participating in the Open Government Partnership are due to make new commitments to advance accountability, transparency and participation. This is a critical moment to show that ambitious changes across a range of policies are possible when reformers in government and civil society seize the OGP opportunity. The ultimate prize is progress towards responsive and trusted government, modernised and open public services, reductions in corruption and waste, and greater corporate accountability.
The heart of OGP participation is a two-year national action plan co-created by governments and civil society, which the 47 countries are now developing. Open government encompasses a huge range of issues, including a shift in the fundamental relationship between citizens and the state. That’s why all countries are required to run in-depth consultations during the drafting process – a major opportunity for civil society to submit ideas and advocate for their inclusion by the July deadline.
In its short lifetime OGP has shown its potential to be a platform for campaigners to make significant breakthroughs. This year’s TED prize winner, the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness, dedicated their ‘wish’ to the fight against anonymous companies that facilitate tax evasion and money laundering on a vast scale. They cited the UK as an example of a country toughening up its laws to tackle this problem by creating a public registry of who owns and controls companies. This policy commitment was the flagship of the UK OGP national action plan launched by Prime Minister Cameron in October 2013 at the London Summit, after NGOs and reformers in government battled for its inclusion. In Brazil, under the OGP umbrella, a long-fought for Access to Information law was passed in 2012 and registered over 50,000 requests in its first six months of operation. The lesson is that when the OGP platform is used in clever ways, breakthroughs are possible, even on the most challenging of issues.
There are many other examples of this type of campaigning success, small and large. Over 1000 open government reform commitments have now been delivered through OGP. For organisations like Transparency International, that has meant a series of victories for their chapters around the world. OGP has also created space for new forms of citizen dialogue and feedback on government performance.
Political commitments are one part of the puzzle. The implementation of OGP plans to have maximum impact in improving people’s lives is also essential. OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism helps ensure that no government has a free ride if it fails to keep its promises. Here campaigners have a clear role in praising or criticising governments according to their performance. If ambitious reforms are recognised, it helps to encourage peer exchange on best practice between countries and foster the race to the top mentality that is often a winning formula in international relations.
Ultimately OGP will be successful if the people that know best how to win the battle for politically challenging reforms use it as a platform. There are some simple ways to accelerate this process. First, international and national NGOs should add OGP dates and deadlines to their campaign calendars. OGP should be as firmly part of the advocacy cycle as the G20, UNGA week, national budget announcements or elections. Second, organisations with large networks should spread the word to local partners about the opportunity available with the OGP platform. There are global networks on extractive industries, freedom of information, open data and many other issues that should be utilizing the OGP platform to the maximum. Third, upcoming OGP regional events in Indonesia on May 6-7, Ireland May 8-9 and Costa Rica in August are action-forcing moments when Ministers will be attending to announce their best new open government commitments. This is a prime opportunity to ensure the ‘race to the top’ rhetoric plays out in practice. Finally, document and publicise what works and what doesn’t so that the OGP mechanism can be continually improved to meet the needs of civil society and governments.
If one country can commit to cracking down on anonymous company ownership in its OGP plans, then there is no reason that others can’t do something similar. But it won’t happen by accident. Without civil society seizing the OGP platform for their own ends, this window of opportunity to alter power and politics dynamics in countries home to a third of the world’s population could pass. In football terms it’s an open goal that shouldn’t be missed.
Contact Joe Powell on Twitter @josephpowell or email@example.com