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At "Peak Open," Open Government Partnership Faces Default States of Closed

BY Alex Howard | Wednesday, November 6 2013

Incoming civil society chair of the OGP, Rakesh Rajani, far left (Photo: Alex Howard)

We may, as TechPresident editorial director Micah Sifry wryly put it on Friday, finally have hit "peak open."

While open government still hasn't quite entered mainstream media discourse, for well over one thousand government officials and members of civil society who gathered in London for the second annual Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit last week, it was top of mind for days on end. If you're a devotee of buzzword bingo, you would have walked away a winner many times over: engagement, co-creation, crowdsourcing, innovation, disruption, big data, and, of course, "transparency," an "idea whose time has come."

What did it all mean? Scrolling back through thousands of #OGP13 tweets, watching conference pictures, or reading the summit agenda or fact sheets doesn't capture the mix of excitment, optimism, skepticism and anger that attendees could feel on every floor of the conference.

Swirling underneath the professional glitz of an international summit were strong undercurrents of concern about its impact upon governments reluctant to cede power, reveal corruption or risk embarrassment upon disclosure of simple incompetence. The OGP summit took place at a moment where 21st century technology-fueled optimism has splashed up against the foundations of institutions created in the previous century. While the use of the Internet as a platform for collective action has grown, so too have attendent concerns about privacy and surveillance, in the wake of disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, where the same technologies that accelerated revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa are being used to capture and track the people advocating for change.

Afterward the hurly burly of the summit, I found myself left with many unanswered questions about what OGP will mean to the billions of people who live in its 62 constituent countries. Rakesh Rajani, founder of Tanzanian-based Twaweza and the incoming civil society co-chair of the OGP, made the need for substantive change clear in his closing remarks to the summit and subsequent interview with Sarita Ranchod.

The metric that "matters most" for open government is the impact it has on people's lives, he said. "Everything the Open Government Partnership has done to-date will go up in smoke if we can't point to change in people's lives."

On one hand, there are many credible open government case studies to consider for those looking for evidence of substantive progress around the world in fighting corruption and improving accounability and public engagement. The growth and endurance of the partnership since its launch in 2011 as an effort to give civil society more of a voice in governance is itself a story.

On the other, there is a significant and perhaps even growing risk, however, that not everything on the "open" agenda means a given country is shifting towards empowering citizens or making public officials more accountable. Panthea Lee, cofounder of The Reboot, explored how "open government" may not be leading to much-needed actual openness here at TechPresident last week. She's not alone: Jonathan Gray, director of policy and ideas at the Open Knowledge Foundation, expressed similar concerns in the Guardian this week, pushing for the Open Government Partnership to foster accountability and social justice, extending into political reforms, not just digital initiatives.

To put it another way, a theme in the first round of national action plans brought by countries in the first two years of the partnership were goals related to digital government or e-government, not open government. This is also related to governments embracing "open data" for economic growth, as UK prime minister David Cameron explored in his remarks to summit.

As he has in the past, Cameron focused upon prosperity as an outcome from adopting open governance, as opposed to, say, more accountable legislatures, fair elections or press freedom. That's not to say that opening up data on beneficial ownership of corporations isn't important or that reducing corruption doesn't have a salutary effect upon both foreign investment and quality or quantity of services received by the poor. If the United Kingdom follows through on that commitment to make corporate data public and the OGP leads to effective pressure on civil service quality and the enactment of democratic reforms in other countries, that's a net positive.

The fact that Russia withdrew its commitment to join the OGP was another good sign that the partnership mattered. If even the limited pressures of membership were more than the Kremlin wanted to expose itself to on the world stage, OGP means something. Speaking on a panel in London, Mort Halperin, a senior advisor to the Open Society Foundations, highlighted OGP's influence on countries adopting standards on extractive industry transparency, freedom of information laws and beneficial ownership as evidence of the partnership's impact.

Where the civil society organizations in the partnership find themselves after two years, however, is fighting to get more deep, fundamental goals enshrined the national action plans for open government and then holding their governments accountable for implementing them effectively. That's a dynamic we'll be able to watch in the United States after the Obama administration committed (again) to modernizing administration of the Freedom of Information Act.

In theory, the OGP's "Independent Reporting Mechanism" will help people decide whether governments met their commitments.

In practice, there are still unanswered questions regarding what will happen if countries fail an IRM report. Suspension? Sanction? More statements of concern or letters to government leaders released to the media? To make this concrete, consider:

  • As the summit began, press freedom in Kenya came under new pressure from a bill in its parliament.
  • The United Kingdom, the host country for the OGP summit, is facing backlash from civil society regarding its policies on freedom of information and press freedoms, including equating the carriage of leaked documents by the family member of a journalist engaged by a media organization with terrorism.
  • As Katrin Verclas noted here at TechPresident, there was a crackdown on non-governmental organizations and media outlets in Azerbaijan during the summit. Azerbaijan is a member of the OGP.

What consequences should any of these countries face?

Warren Krafchik, the departing civil society chair of OGP, warned the conference that participating members and the OGP secretariat will have to decide what these consequences will be for countries whose actions sharply diverge from their "open" rhetoric, and soon.

"In an alarming range of countries, activists increasingly can’t organize, speak openly, and receive funding," he said.

"In many cases, outspoken critics are jailed, and even tortured and killed. Civil society faces troubling new restrictions all around the world. Even some governments that are committed to democracy and are promoting openness as part of OGP are simultaneously stifling civil society. We must recognize that those government efforts could undermine everything we stand for. How
can OGP respond? One option is to adjust the partnership’s eligibility criteria to better capture civil society space. A second is to enable OGP to suspend countries that violate the basic conditions for civil society to operate. We can debate the option. We cannot delay this discussion."

It's also not clear yet what impact Indonesia taking over as government chair of the Open Government Partnership will have on that determination nor its manner, although the focus on improving services in its national action plan might suggest a preference on delivery over democratic accountability.

Beyond these essentially bureaucratic questions of membership and evaluation, how OGP and its member countries grapple with more fundamental issues of money in politics, mass surveillance, inequality, or threats to human rights, civil liberties, freedom of expression or assembly stand to define its success or failure on the world stage. Now that the talking in London has ended, much still remains to do.

These "thorny issues came up as tensions throughout the week. The partnership's hybrid structure, which consists of representatives of national governments and a broad swath of representatives of "civil society" non-governmental organizations, virtually guarantees that this dynamic will continue.

In one of the high points of the summit, a representative of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana, an Indian social movement that has pressed for the public's right to information, posed United States Secretary of State John Kerry a kind but pointed question spying. In response to Aruna Roy's question, Kerry, who had just extolled the "impact that civil society has had on our structure of government and who we are and what we do" in the United States, said that NSA spying had gone too far.

Away from the headlines created by that admission, UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue, said that sacrificing civil liberties in the name of security leads to building authoritarian regimes. La Rue has been extremely critical of the effect of mass surveillance on privacy and human rights.

A packed room on the "civil society day" of the summit held an open dialogue (that included yours truly) that considered open data usage, privacy, press freedom, human rights, access to the Internet, censorship and the limits of "openness."

To make progress on improving those conditions, members of civil society will need to become smarter about power and consider whether desired reforms are directed towards greater accountability and social justice or just improved services and economic growth.

These agendas aren't fundamentally at odds, though the addition of "civic entrepreneurs" with profit motives into an ecosystem previously populated by big contractors, media, NGOs and advocates has clearly made some observers of the expanded open government space deeply uneasy about greater exposure of public services to market forces and privatization pressures.

As governments reform how they approach engaging constituents in new media, adding to existing print, radio and television, they now have new opportunities to rethink how they use technology to deliver services, empower democratic governance and build accountability into those systems.

Focusing on the economic growth potential in open data also has the potential to obfuscate lack of movement on other areas of concern to civil society, from free and fair elections to access to the courts to press freedom, and take attention away from governments being slow to release data relevant to democratic accountability.

Jose Alonso, program manager for open data at the World Wide Web Foundation, is worried:

So is Tim Berners-Lee, perhaps the world's most prominent supporter of open data. He has grown more outspoken over the years about online privacy and security concerns, where governments aren't "respecting the infrastructure."

At OGP, Berners-Lee both introduced an "Open Data Barometer" and warned of chilling effects from surveillance.

"The word censorship horrifies a lot of people, but in many cases spying can be worse," said Berners-Lee, during his keynote. "It is democracy as a whole that depends upon what we're now starting to call 'Internet rights.'"

As this new young century progresses, the digital systems governments build for services and public engagement can extend far beyond being "ephemera" to a fundamental renegotiation of the relationship and power dynamic between the governed and those elected to govern them.

“The connection between the economic and political systems of a nation can be absolutely crucial," Prime Minister Cameron reminded the summit. "Of course there are market economies in closed political systems. But the best way to ensure an economy delivers long term success for all its people is to have it overseen by political institutions in which everyone can share. Where governments are the servants of the people, not the masters where close tabs are kept on the powerful and where the powerful are forced to act in the interests of the people, not a narrow clique. This is why the transparency agenda is so important.”

In that context, the carrot of economic growth and improved service delivery may prove useful to bring other governments into the partnership or as levers to encourage them to embrace reform or affirmative freedoms for their citizens.

Alexander B. Howard is currently a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at Columbia University ow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a fellow at the Networked Transparency Policy Project at the Ash Center at Harvard University. The Secretariat for the Open Government Partnership provided him a travel bursary for airfare and lodging in London.