You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Open Thread: The Second Open Government Partnership Summit

BY Susannah Vila and Christopher Wilson | Tuesday, November 5 2013

Cabinet Office/flickr

The goal of the Open Government Partnership is to get governments to make (and carry out) concrete commitments that promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

How’s that going? At the end of the month about 1,200 OGP participants came together for the initiative's third annual summit. Over the course of the event we shared analyses and documentation of the issues that made it onto the agenda, the lessons learned and the next steps.

Running Posts in the Open Thread:

Last Post! Recommend Resources for More OGP Coverage

As it turns out, many great resources were on hand in London to provide coverage and analysis of the Open Government Partnership at two years. Here are some recommended links:

And from the Open Government Partnership:

The Challenge of Awareness Building

It’s all very well and good to launch a multi-stakeholder initiative to make governments work better for citizens, but what if no one knows about it?

In the lead up to the London summit, the results of a global survey of journalists indicated that most of them knew nothing about the OGP even though 70% were from member countries. If journalists don’t even know about the OGP then it is hard to imagine that many people in these countries do.

The lack of awareness is an important challenge that needs to be addressed in the coming year. After all, people engagement is key for turning data into information, pushing on government to create relevant and useful commitments, to implement those commitments, and to measure them. As a former State Department official put it in his description of the meetings that birthed OGP: “sustainable progress was possible, in our view, only if governments were making commitments at the highest level and being held accountable by their own citizens, rather than by organizations governments, or groups on the outside.” For the OGP to progress and have an impact, actual people need to care about it.

Here are some ideas for achieving engagement that are on the table right now:

Media involvement 

This year the OGP created an independent media council that's made up of high profile journalists who will provide “expert guidance on how OGP can better partner with the media to promote [its] shared objective of more open and accessible government.” As its first step, the council released a white paper with recommendations. They call for a whole lot of time and resources to be put into public engagement, for the OGP to take on the responsibility of creating mechanisms that educate journalists about how to report on open government (tools like standards will make this easier), and to publicly, unequivocally recognize the importance of free expression and free media. The creation of the council indicates a concerted effort to bring journalists into the process in a variety of ways, but it remains to be seen if these recommendations will be acted on.

Networks to reach networks to reach networks

At the end of the pre-summit event for civil society we spoke to Warren Krafchik about his ideas for engaging people with the OGP. "I think we need to use networks to reach more people," he said. "We have networks like that of the International Budget Partnership [the organization he heads up] involved, but what about the ones we haven’t reached yet at all: faith based groups, rotary clubs, chambers of commerce. The most cost-effective way to reach more people will be to use networks and networks of networks." Krafchik also challenged all attendees in civil society to go back to their countries and make better use of the media and connect with other multi-stakeholder initiatives that have a presence in their country. "Your key responsibility at home is to make sure that you're inviting as many people as possible into the OGP process in your country," he said.

Different kinds of opportunities for participation

We spoke with Tim Hughes of Involve, a British CSO that helps public servants to incorporate citizen participation into their work, about participation with the UK government's action plan. As he described it, citizens haven’t really been involved at all. The experience of seeing just how uninvolved most people in the UK were gave him some ideas for how to change that next time around. “For the third action plan we hope to have multiple different levels of engagement. We still need tightly knit group of CSOs with time and capacity to deal with action plans and then another layer of less involved CSOs, but I also want to have a third layer of activities that are focused 100% on engaging citizens on the issues and questions that resonate with their day to day lives.”

Most organizations in each sector won't have the time or resources to be especially involved in the OGP process. But their audiences and networks are  key assets for public engagement, that's why it makes sense to get them involved in ways that fit with their capacities.

In a move that is indicative of this pressing need, at the very end of the London summit the OGP announced the launch of an open government awards competition, the theme of which is citizen engagement. Their intention here is to incentive government-led programs that partner with CSOs to provide citizens with value in exchange for participation.

Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted (the IRM Process)


One of Friday’s most prominent milestones was the launch of the first eight reports from the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM). IRM reports are conducted by independent national researchers* and are seen by OGP insiders as the key accountability mechanism for planning and implementing national action plans. As the first eight reports are completed and launched, and preparations are underway for the next fifty-plus, there are a lot of questions about what works and what doesn't, about how to give the IRM sharper teeth.

A number of interesting commonalities emerged during a session for sharing lessons between independent researchers. Almost everyone expressed frustration regarding lack of specificity in the government commitments they were supposed to be measuring. Simply put, it’s really difficult to determine whether a government followed through on its commitment to “promote openness.” The new commitments that governments brought with them to the London summit provide more examples of such lack of specificity.

There were a lot of compelling ideas about methods and challenges for producing rigorous and independent accountability mechanisms, but no clear answers. Overstretched and underfunded like the rest of the OGP Support Unit, it will be interesting to see how the IRM manages to consolidate and share learning between researchers, and what kind of support it can provide for challenging political contexts researchers often face in country.

The tone was much more more principled when the first eight IRM reports were launched in plenary towards the end of the summit. Here, panelists were primarily concerned about the IRM’s teeth. Mo Ibrahim was especially emphatic in this regard, noting that the IRM needs:

  • More high level political advisors to provide researchers with “political cover”

  • To be structured for uptake and dialogue (Ibrahim bemoaned the length of some reports

Others expressed concerns about the timelines forced on IRM processes, the credibility and perceived independence of researchers, and the dilemma researchers face in trying to report on specific national action plan commitments while also accounting for the general political context in countries (since the latter can run counter to the specific activities listed in action plans).

Generally, there was wide recognition that these first eight reports are a trial run. There is a lot of room for refinement in the next batch, and at the end of the day, the question is whether IRM processes can support more collaboration between government and civil society, whether they will be overly contentious, or whether they will have any impact at all.

Making Sure Governments Address Uncomfortable Issues

There was talk leading up to the Summit about how OGP might need to get out of it’s comfort zone to address some thorny issues (see our post on privacy and surveillance for more background). But when the official Summit kicked off Thursday, there was a whole other kind of discomfort that had to be addressed:

If open government is about accountability and disrupting power relationships in countries, then there will be winners and losers. And if basic, run-of-the-mill open government (open government data, consultations, transparent policy making) isn’t making someone poignantly uncomfortable, is there really a point to it?

This theme recurred in several contexts throughout the two day summit but was initially framed in Thursday’s opening remarks by Francis Maude. Describing how the two day summit would include sharing successes and mistakes, as well as the first independent review reports, Maude noted:

For us in government, that will be uncomfortable. Because transparency in government takes us out of the comfort zone. It’s not a warm and fuzzy add-on. It’s not a feel good accessory. It’s hard edged, tough, rigorous. And we want it hard wired into international governance and into everything that we do. And we should acknowledge that governments aren’t monolithic. Each government contains reformers and contains resistors. And that’s as true as it is of bureaucracies as it is of politicians. (See his comments starting at 28:55 here)

This perspective has a number of tactical implications for civil society. On the one hand, many seemed to find this a welcome reminder of the importance of identifying allies and blockers within governments and tailoring campaigns and advocacy to target these relationships. On the other hand, there was concern expressed in several quarters that the OGP can be used as a public relations tool for governments to “white wash” their political practices to attract investment or distract from domestic affairs. This concern was voiced explicitly about countries like Azerbaijan, that many civil society members don’t feel deserve to be in the OGP club. But it was also targeted to open government leaders like the the US and the UK, whose openness is subjected to new skepticism following the revelations of mass surveillance earlier this year (see our post below for coverage of these discussions).

Another important take came from the Right to Information community (R2I). The relationship between open government and R2I has been a source of some uncertainty. While it seems clear that strong R2I laws are a necessary accountability backstop for open government, current eligibility criteria only require that countries have some kind of access to information law in place or on the books in order to join. This leaves room for actual practice and the quality of laws to vary wildly.

Some have suggested that this is part of the reason the R2I community feels left behind in the normative sweep of open government. That was certain the impression given by Toby Mendel, longtime champion of access to information reforms and campaigns. In the Thursday session on R2I he suggested that he and David Eaves represented classic characterizations of their respective communities: grumpy campaigners like Mendel are doing the hard slog of pushing for access to information that government doesn’t want to engage with while open government advocates get to do all the fun, sexy work. This led to an interesting conversation about how antagonistic “openness” needs to be.

In that session Eaves (who writes for this site) responded with points about both the importance of open data and the struggle to make it open. He began by noting that any data that government releases has potential consequences for power and accountability, no matter how innocuous it might seem at first (bus routes that show inequitable service to marginalized communities, for example). So even open data efforts that aren’t particularly uncomfortable for government can be important. Secondly, Eaves described the resistance challenges often involved in opening government data (even if the task is only aggregating and presenting data already in the public domain) and the importance of relationships and long-term interaction with government to cultivate an open culture. Mendel responded by suggesting that we might want to imagine a scale of increasing resistance to transparency, whereby the more information sought has to do with specific activities and individuals in government, and the more it highlights specific information that power wants to keep hidden, the more resistance there will be.

Notably, this vibrant discussion took place in a panel and a room dominated by civil society. None of the questions on comfort, reform and resistance within government were raised during the meeting on OGP’s working group on Access to Information, where two ministers sat on the panel (Mendel tried, but failed to get the floor).

How can these questions be integrated into the relationships that open data and open government? In addition to the big questions about privacy and surveillance, how can other confrontational topics like the right to information become a part of  the way governments think about openness? If uncomfortable issues aren't hardwired into the way that OGP members countries engage with OGP, is there any point to this initiative?

Confronting Privacy and Surveillance

Aruna Roy and other Indian activists at OGP/image: @josephpowell/ Twitter

Privacy and surveillance are occupying an increasingly important position in OGP discussions following the Snowden revelations of earlier this year. As Katrin Verclas previously noted in techPresident, civil society issued a statement of concern at the end of the summit that was circulated widely with the OGP community.

Martin Tisne might have been the first to question that the OGP community needs to think about how it would tackle these issues, and privacy and surveillance surfaced as part of the “thorny issues” discussion that started in the days before the summit. They were listed alongside issues like campaign regulation and the private sector as areas where OGP would have to leave its comfort zone. For awhile there was even a dedicated track proposed to deal with them. That didn’t happen, but by the end of the event privacy had emerged as a clearly dominant topic with little doubt about the civil society position. The CSO day was followed by a Friday session on “New Frontiers”, a number of corridor conversations, and dinner on the sidelines, where a handful of thinkers on privacy, surveillance and open government try and connect the conceptual dots. The day culminated in the civil society statement that was sent around in the last hours of the summit.

A significant focus of these conversations have been tactical: how to raise these issues and push back against surveillance in a way that won’t inhibit government reformers from continuing to open up? But this was coupled with a significant amount of conceptual confusions: much of the territory we are suddenly forced to consider is strikingly new (the capacity of governments for surveillance, the potential of data mining and predictive analytics, the role of algorithms in policy) yet are closely related to familiar advocacy issues like state secrecy and access to information.

The turning point, when everyone finally seemed to be clearly and explicitly on the same page was in the plenary on Thursday evening, when Indian activist Aruna Roy questioned UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was participating via video link. About halfway through the conversation, she turned to face his gigantic image over her shoulder, and in the most polite voice one could imagine, she asked him quite simply:

“I just want to ask a question. The world has become much better placed, there is more transparency in governments, there is more accountability. But at the same time, there are more restrictive laws being passed by all governments today than ever before. There is an attempt at surveillance by my government, by your government. Why is this happening? I want to know, because if we are going to become a more open society, we should always trust each other. We don’t have to spy or suspect or believe that the other one’s bad? I trust you. I believe that there is a social contract between the two of you and all of us, that we will work in the interest of each other. It’s such a delicate balance that when it gets destructed, it takes a long time to get it right.” (It’s at about 24:35 in this video).

This was clearly a welcome question, and the audience responded with a roar of applause and a rush of tweets. Kerry’s response was less clear, and didn’t elicit much sympathy from the civil society crowd and helped to spur the drafting of the official statement that’s now being circulated.

It’s encouraging to watch this kind of resolve manifest -- clear in it’s principals and its purpose -- in the face of new challenges and uncertain conceptual territory. But what kind of response can be expected from governments - those who have been implicated in large scale and unprecedented surveillance and those who have been quick to position themselves as its victims or opponents? It seems fair to expect that such goals may find their way into some national action plans. A separate question is whether we have any traction in international relations around open government. It’s easy enough to imagine issues of surveillance creating disillusionment, or maybe even encouraging a renewed commitment to OGP leadership from countries like Brazil, who have been vocal in their condemnation of US surveillance. It’s also easy to imagine that it could be a non-starter globally, but a point of pride for a handful of countries, creating another point of dissonance between rhetoric at the global and the national level.

Who’s in the club?: Ideas for Making Requirements Mean More

image: Cabinet Office/flickr

There’s a significant amount of dissatisfaction among civil society about which countries are able to join the OGP but not much clarity about how to address it. At the same time, the OGP is welcoming new types of actors, like multilateral development institutions, and considering how to engage with the private sector. This raises some interesting questions about what it means to be part of the OGP club. These questions aren’t reflected in the agenda but they keep popping up in corridor conversations and in snarky remarks to panelists.

The formal eligibility criteria has always been contentious. There’s pretty wide recognition that comparative governance rankings are a blunt instrument that often fail to account for specific country contexts. Add to this the fact that some of the criteria are based on closed, proprietary data, and you have a thorny question about whether this is an appropriate method for vetting OGP members. Add again to this, concerns about governments using the OGP brand to “white wash” their human rights performance, and you have a pretty vibrant debate. As former steering committee member, Otiene Gladwell put it:

“We want to keep OGP aspirational. It is a club that is not open to all. We need to push for quality and ambition; not to give governments a pass to sign up to. We would like to assume that they have read and understood what it is that they sign up to.”

More than a few participants have noted that according to current criteria both Ethiopia and Venezuela (for example) could join, but many feel that this sends the wrong message and poses a risk to the initiative.

Of course the question is what to do about it. A number of suggestions have been floated over coffee and cocktails. Having the steering committee or some other organ come up with a blacklist is perhaps the most entertaining. Coming up with metrics to measure improvement and then kicking out any countries that don’t cut it is only slightly more feasible (Alejandro Gonzalez from GESOC actually suggested this in this morning’s plenary session). It’s easier to imagine reworking the existing criteria so that they are more rigorous and representative. But that too will be a tough discussion. Some have also floated the value of sanctions versus incentives for sticking to the rules (at least one or two experiences suggest that sanctions don’t work and incentives might).

There are also a lot of questions about how the steering committee membership will be determined. Civil society and governments currently have two parallel processes for rotating seats and there are rumors that the government rotation scheme is voluntary but suffers from a lack of volunteers. As the civil society community begins to apply pressure on its members of the steering committee to be more vocal about tough issues it will be interesting to see how that committee wrestles with its own role and governance challenges.

These challenges are compounded by the broad interest (and broad skepticism) in partnering up with the private sector. Profit is an important component in how open data generates its users, and the trope of economic growth is an important one for how governments justify opening up, both to constituencies and to themselves. For many civil society representatives, it’s just as important to interrogate the practices of private sector engagement with open government from a transparency and human rights perspective and to make sure they are playing by the rules of the game. It’s an often polarizing debate that experienced a refreshing moment of consensus and excitement yesterday when David Cameron announced that the UK was compiling a registry of beneficial openness among corporations and that this would be open to the public.

Lastly, there’s the issue of multilateral development organizations. UNDP, the World Bank, the OECD and the IDB all joined a plenary panel last night to announce their support for the OGP. The majority of that panel focused on the organizations’ complementary mandates and normative support, but it remains to be seen what that support will look like in practice. So far, they are participating in thematic working groups, but there seems to be a general expectation that this will translate into some kind of country-level activity as well.

What that means for power dynamics in-country is the big question that follows. Can the World Bank or the UNDP support meaningful consultative and collaborative processes around national action plans without gumming things up or slowing things down? Can IDB effectively navigate the power dynamics in countries that are opening up even while civil society space is closing down? These are questions that can only be answered over time and in-country. But there’s no doubt that the question of who gets a seat as the table, will continue to be definitive for meaningful change in countries, as important as it has been for popularizing the OGP governance model at the global level.

Here's What it Looks Like When OGP Member Countries Leave Civil Society Out

Ernesto Belisario belongs to a group of civil society members that created their own national action plan when the government initially excluded civil society from the process. (Alessio Jacona/flickr)

There are plenty (plenty) examples of OGP not working to make government accountable - both in general and specifically to its commitments as a member of the partnership.

Here's one from Italy, where the government joined the OGP in April 2012 and didn’t include civil society at all in the process of creating its national action plan. In response an Italian civil society group released a report on the implementation of the first Italian action plan. Ernesto Belisario, who is part of that group and representing Italian civil society, talks to us about that process:

Q: What did civil society initially do to try and input the action plan process?

A: We tried meeting ministers or civil servants involved in the OGP mechanism, writing articles or petitions, and creating mechanisms for citizen participation like this.

Q: Why did you create this report?

A: Civil society representatives have not been involved, informed or consulted in the government's OGP activities. We wanted to establish a collaboration methodology with our government with an eye towards the next action plan.

Q: The OGP is meant to be a network of people who are pushing for reform in their countries - have you gotten any ideas from other countries about how to push your government to include civil society in its consultation?

A: We did try things from other countries: we tried to propose regular meetings with Italian open government staff, we created a network of different NGOs discussing in meetings or mailing lists, and we promoted petitions. But nothing worked: they don't want participation and collaboration. I think the problem is that in Italy we lack the culture of engagement.

Q: Has there been any response to your report?

A: Yes - Our report was published on a government website, the minister of public administration promised to meet us, and they started to invite us to conferences or meetings.

Belisario and his colleagues’ obstacles are central to the OGP experience thus far: governments are strongly encouraged to include civil society (and citizens) in their planning but tend not to unless they are pushed. What worked in one country to make that happen won’t necessarily work in another, but it’s worth noting that in this and other cases getting international observers to pay attention, such as through the network of OGP mailing lists, is useful. Ernesto shared the civil society report on an OGP mailing list, leading non-italian OGP observers and participants to find out about it. This may have had some role in their getting meeting invites from the government.

New Tools to Support Advocacy

Cabinet Office/flickr

The kick off meeting of the second annual OGP summit featured a moderated conversation between the President of Tanzania and one of the most high-profile civil society advocates in the OGP community, Rakesh Rajani, who heads up the Tanzanian Civil Society Organization (CSO) Twaweza and is the incoming co-chair for civil society on the steering committee. It was a happy-go-lucky conversation in which President Kikwete and Rajani talked about how they’ll work together in the new few years. Kikwete announced that Tanzania’s stretch commitment will be to enact a Freedom of Information law (“it will be a good law” said Rajani) and the audience applauded.

Off the stage, it’s significantly harder for civil society members to productively engage with decision makers. They usually need to initiate thought-out and resource intensive advocacy efforts in order to get the right peoples’ attention. Doing this is often easier and more effective with tools like metrics, standards and other kinds of data and information. Three such tools were released in timing with the summit.

First off there’s the new Open Government Guide. It was produced by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative to provide reformers with a model of what specific committments should or could look like. For example the chapter on aid transparency provides models of strong, relevant commitments. It allows CSOs to push for the adoption of such commitments with a model in hand. Theoretically, this makes it easier for government to enact strong open government commitments.

The Global Open Data Initiative (GODI) recently issued a declaration that calls on governments to take specific actions that relate to open data. This includes things like: releasing it in a way that makes it easiest for people to do things with it, putting resources into creating corresponding user communities, developing the capacity of public officials to create and release credible data, enacting legal frameworks to support its release, and being transparent about the way in which they choose what they’re releasing and what they’re not. Since many open government commitments have to do with open data, it does makes sense to define that term and delineate the kinds of commitments that corresponds to. It’s hard to advocate or to create something that’s poorly defined.

Hopefully GODI will make it easier for CSOs and government reformers to bring about stronger actions on open data. In the same vein, a similar effort from the folks at Access Info is called Open Government Standards. According to their site, the idea came about like this:

“The Open Government Standards is an idea that came about in April 2012, coinciding with the presentation of the OGP national Action Plans. Their contents were extremely varied and did not always relate to Open Government. After seeing the mixed content of these documents,” they decided to “define what Open Government means from civil society’s point of view.”

Whether you’re a president, a bureaucrat, a high-profile civil society leader or a grassroots activist it’s difficult to enact a reform without first defining it. That’s why the new Open Government guide, GODI and the open government standards are all promising. One challenge that’s worth noting, however, is the question of tool adoption. We asked Maya Forstater, who wrote the open government guide, how she and her colleagues plan on getting the guide into the hands of the people who need it. Their plan as she saw it had to do with leveraging the networks of people at the summit this week. They are, after all, the ones who are most active in open government reform as it relates to OGP.

Is Civil Society On the Same Page?


Yesterday was the OGP Summit’s Civil Society Day, the “pre-summit” immediately preceding the two official days that opened this morning with David Cameron. With around 300 participants, five sessions running continuously in parallel, and a menagerie of issues on the agenda, the CSO day was a hectic and lively affair. It was also civil society's chance to take stock and set priorities, for the rest of the summit as well as the year to come.

In opening the day, the OGP Support Unit (a secretariat of sorts, but more ambitious and less funded) outlined what it saw as some of the key points for review. Linda Frey (Director of the Support Unit) and Paul Maassen (OGP’s Civil Society Coordinator) set the stage by suggesting that OGP needed to move out of a start-up phase and start thinking about open government as less of a sprint and more of a marathon (someone in the crowd suggested that Iron Man was more apt). There was an emphasis on country-level work, and an emphatic optimism, as Maassen cited figures from the recent survey that indicate civil society is more optimistic about OGP’s potential than it was a year ago.

That optimism was tempered by skepticism in the room, though. When the floor opened up, there was significant discussion about OGP’s limits, and how to link the partnership to actual government practice. People seemed to describe a gap between the OGP mission and real openness in-country, which leads to real accountability. This was especially clear in the unconference (which ran in parallel to other sessions all day). Conversations on research methodologies and documentation quickly turned to questions about how to hold governments to account for their OGP commitments. Complaints from civil society organizations were familiar to anyone who has been following the field: country commitments are too vague to be meaningful or they represent things that have already been done; there is no way to ensure that consultation processes are genuine; and there are too few credible sources of review.

It was an interesting entry point for a following session, which was titled “Don’t complain, campaign!” The session opened with brief presentations but quickly moved into a lively debate about the very nature of the OGP machinery and what it will take to translate the partnership’s aims into meaningful openness for actual people. In the words of a Zimbabwean activist, what is needed is a more bottom-up approach: “this lofty language does not help us...a woman in a village may not use the word 'democracy' or 'consultation,' but she knows when she has not been consulted." The majority of this session was devoted to open lively discussion among the one hundred-something participants.  This sentiment was echoed by several civil society representatives in the room, and its strategic importance was also highlighted. As the Mexican organization Social TIC put it, if ideas like “openness” are not meaningful and identifiable by people on the street, they are very hard to defend.

This tension between how the OGP is developing at the global level, and the way it is experienced by constituents at home, was a pressing issue for a number of national and local activists. Some formulated it as telling the emperor that he has no clothes, and a South African participant went so far as to question if and how civil society should withdraw from OGP if they feel that it is not contributing to improved openness and accountability in their country.

Despite these concerns, there was a common conviction in yesterday’s sessions that country impact is the greatest priority and where effort needs to be focused. The question though is what the international support unit, steering committee and other international players can do to support and facilitate impact in country. What can be done to make this global initiative a more powerful tool for leveraging national advocacy? There were no clear answers to this, but there were some suggestions about how to get started. Civil society members of the OGP steering committee were encouraged to be more vocal about these concerns. Vanessa Herringshaw from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative encouraged national civil society actors not only to tell the emperor that he has no clothes, but also to give him fashion advice.  Everyone seems to agree that there is plenty of work to do.

Does the OGP Mean Anything Without Civil Society Engagement?

60 countries have joined the OGP. Can it lead to more responsive governance? (Image: Stanford Social Innovation Review)

On the outskirts of the main meeting area at the OGP civil society day, a parallel unconference took shape. A clique of OGP participants from Jordan proposed a session on how civil society can gain space and impact. It seemed like plenty of people would have ideas for them, but their session was sparsely attended. This is indicative of one challenge that the OGP infrastructure knows it's facing. Experiences must be shared (and acted on) between civil society members, but how?

There’s a gap in what’s being offered to CSOs, said former civil society co-chair Warren Krafchik at the end of the CSO day. He pointed out that the OGP provides a networking mechanism for governments but not for civil society. At the same time, the stakes are getting higher. “Whether it be making it harder to register to vote or killing or imprisoning people, there is a trend towards closed” rather than open, said Krafchik. If the OGP “represents a hope to shift the balance in favor of openness,” then the only way that hope will be fulfilled is if it can figure out how to effectively support civil society. Otherwise, groups like the Jordanian contingent will have to figure it all out for themselves - and may not be so successful at doing so.

How will the OGP take on this challenge in the next year? One way is by putting lots of emphasis on creating documentation. Just before the summit about 25 case studies were released, adding to the 10 country reports that had come out in the weeks prior. There are definitely some lessons learned to highlight from these case studies. For example, here’s some of what works:

  • Networked Advocacy: In January the Chilean government organized a regional event but didn’t invite anyone from civil society. When word got out to a member of the Regional Alliance for Freedom of Expression it spread through that network and then through the Transparency International network. Together they were able to pool contacts and resources, successfully negotiating with the Chilean Government for civil society inclusion.
  • Create a Mediating Body: In Croatia a government body called the OGP Council was created and mandated to mediate (from within government) between people within the state and people outside of the state. The Council has 19 representatives that come from different ministries and also other sectors (media, civil society, etc). The result? The Croatian draft action plan was placed online and circulated for input through the mailing list of the OGP Council, and 50 to 75 percent of all civil society submissions are reflected in this final plan. Creating a body that's mandated to give civil society its space worked, in this case, for reformers.
  • Shadow Consultations and Shadow Action Plans: In Ukraine a civil society coalition, The Civic Partnership, held the consultations that they wanted the government to be organizing. They got 500 active organizations to take part in the workshopping of their ‘shadow action plan’ (a civil-society-created national action plan meant to build awareness about the government’s lack of consultation and to synthesize civil society’s open government demands). Local government officials ended up noticing and following the civic partnership’s lead. “The final document, produced jointly by partnership members and government took on board 80% of the suggestions made by civil society” through these shadow activities.
  • Standards: The efficacy of international systems for national or local advocacy is clearly a pretty relevant issue for the OGP (it’s an international structure mandated to facilitate national change). One potentially useful tool that’s emerged recently is open government standards. If your civil society organization knows that your member government’s commitments related to open data aren’t being fulfilled to the extent that you expected, you could perhaps use a set of internationally accepted minimum standards to make this known. That’s part of what new initiatives like Open Government Standards and the Global Open Data Initiative are trying to accomplish, although such standards aren’t new (check out these principles of open government data from Tim O’Reilly and Carl Malamud in 2007).

But the OGP - the Support Unit and the independent civil society coordinator's team - need to do more than disseminate case studies (as useful as they can be). In the coming year it needs to prove its added value to civil society organizations. It's not clear how it should or can do that. What is clear is that, if it doesn't, civil society participation might either dissipate or congeal into its own networks and communities of practice that have little to do with the OGP as an international mechanism. Even further, without strong civil society action, close observers might very well come to the conclusion that "open" has little do with with civic engagement or accountability. 

Nine Things Civil Society Wants To Do in the Coming Year to Improve OGP

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the issue of space for civil society is getting short shrift. At a session that was supposed to cover the issue it wasn’t until one member of the civil society steering committee took the floor during the Q & A at the end that the the practical “to dos” with regard to civic space came to the fore.

People are too often conflating the willingness of governments to get involved in OGP with the ability to do anything on the ground by civil society, she said. To overcome this challenge the steering committee decided while meeting in London that in the coming year it wants to:

    1. Raise the bar for eligibility.
    2. Raise the ceiling by looking for indicators to spot and reward actions that maintain or make civic space.
    3. Create a rapid response mechanism.
    4. Explore the degree to which the IRM might help to measure civil society space.
    5. Explore the degree to which civil society can make IRM reports more accurate. For example, shadow reports and consultations with civil society are key for the quality of IRM reports.
    6. Define terms. It’s currently stated that if a government has two bad reports it can be suspended or “kicked out." But what does that mean?
    7. Facilitate more peer learning among civil society.
    8. Provide more capacity building for civil society.
    9. Linking with and leveraging other networks and multi-stakeholder initiatives.

These to-dos were also alluded to in Krafchik’s words at the end of the CSO day. He said that there’s a huge opportunity around openness right now but there’s also a trend towards closed. By doing the above OGP would perhaps shift the balance in favor of openness.

What Can Actually Happen Today? We Ask Paul Maassen

Paul Maassen is the OGP's civil society coordinator. His role is to support independent engagement with the OGP in all member countries. We had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about what he wants to get out of the event here in London.

Q: Last week we posted 7 key issues that are on the table this week for the OGP. What did we miss?

A: I think one additional big thing on the agenda going forward is the question of how we can broaden the community and civil society engagement in OGP. We are still mostly working in "issue silos," not coordinating. How can we connect the OGP with parallel communities, networks and groups like the access to information and open data communities but also less usual ones like climate groups or poverty networks?

Another big elephant in the room is the credibility of OGP itself – with eligibility criteria this low, with members like Azerbaijan that for many are not symbols of openness. People ask: how can we take OGP seriously? Is it more than just a photo opportunity with President Obama? And recent news related to surveillance will also be a big issue for many - how can you support open government on the one hand but do something that’s fully against the principles of open government? The U.S. would argue that they [surveillance and open data] are different issues but many civil society members don’t see it as different. I think this is the reality we are facing: Parallel trends on more open and more closed, [but] we have to make sure open is stronger.

Lastly, how are we dealing with other levels of governance? For instance the European Union on the one hand or city governments on the other hand. It is cities where the innovation is often more interesting and is also closer to citizens. I think OGP has its hands full right now in making OGP itself work and is therefore reluctant to address this, but it can’t keep putting it off.

Q: In an ideal world what’s the output of the CS day?

A: We’ve framed the whole program around broadening (more people, more issues, different levels of government), deepening (quality, ambition), connecting and inspiring (experiences, inspirations from other countries). In Brasilia there were 200 civil society delegates and this week there will be 600 (or probably closer to 800). To make the most of this opportunity civil society has to work together, find each other more easily. Ideally, they’ll get their preparation and venting done over the course of this day and be ready to start the summit with a shared strategy so they can make the most of it.

Q: How can the CS day impact the agenda and the outcomes of the summit?

A: The goal of the summit isn’t to make decisions - it’s more about setting the agenda for the next year of the OGP. The CS Steering Committee members will come with ideas and arguments to the CSO days and check with the community if the direction is right. For example, there will be a push for strengthening the OGP mechanism on ambition and quality (better guidelines for civil society and government dialogue, standards for measurement and strengthening the IRM). And they’ll announce plans for a task force to focus on civic engagement.

At Civil Society Day, Q&A With Moldova's Veronica Cretu on Local Voices

One of the first things mentioned at the civil society day of the OGP summit here in London was the importance of broadening participation in the initiative. We spoke with one member of the Civil Society Steering Committee, Moldova's Veronica Cretu, about her efforts to incorporate local voices. She has encouraged civil society participants in the coming OGP Summit to get people together beforehand to discuss and synthesize local voices, calling these get-togethers "remote hubs."

The hubs, which are in-country OGP-related events, would bring more local perspectives to the issues addressed during the summit while also potentially building awareness about what the OGP is. This latter goal is a key issue that we’ll post more on because, to put it bluntly, it hasn’t worked at all. For example, in a recent global survey of journalists, most of them have never heard of the partnership even though 70 percent of those answering came from partner countries. If journalists don’t even know about the OGP, how can you expect this from everyday citizens?

Here’s what Cretu said about her efforts to strengthen local networks.

Q: What’s your goal?

A: You cannot put half of the country on a plane and take them to the summit. That’s why, ideally, people in member countries were given the opportunity to do two things. The first is to hold what we are calling remote hubs - local events that take place a couple of weeks before the summit and allow participants to talk about issues relevant for internal home affairs on the one hand and, on the other hand, spread the word about the summit to different stakeholders who can formulate questions, raise concerns and /or challenges related to the Open Government agenda. The second is to encourage as many participants as possible to follow, during the Summit dates, live streams of the Summit’s sessions, workshops and thus, continue being engaged in this dialogue around Open Government.

Q: Which countries have responded to your call for local events?

A: I must admit that I had higher expectations for responses and activities from countries. I’ve received several emails from different parts of the world expressing intent and interest to host a local event prior to the Summit, but different factors that did affect the implementation of this idea:

  • Lack of resources to organize local events;
  • Difficulties in bringing all key stakeholders involved in Open Government around the same table;
  • Limited opportunities for CSOs from remote areas to participate in these local events (which would take place in capital cities);
  • Other events which were taking place throughout October and which were already demanding time and resources of CSOs that are engaged in OG in member countries;
  • Launching the call for remote hubs/local events too close to the Summit;

All these aspects are definitely worth analyzing and exploring during and after the Summit itself with civil society representatives. However, even if there were few local events, this has been a great exercise, and a good step forward toward building a culture for Open Government in our home countries. Here’s what did happen:

  • Moldova: We (a civil society working group on E-Government/Open Government) had a local event which brought together several stakeholders and we looked particularly into what should be the key priorities for Moldova’s Action Plan on Open Government for 2014-2015 and what are the lessons we should keep in mind based on the experiences related to the elaboration, consultation and implementation of the first Action Plan.
  • Costa Rica:Colleagues from [the CSO] HIVOS in Costa Rica produced video material that highlights the progress of the Open Government Partnership in Costa Rica. What's still to be done about Open Government in Costa Rica?
  • In Guatemala the local event was organized by Republican Institute Central America office in Guatemala and was actually an online event, a webinar titled “Open Government and Open Data for Municipalities,” which I also participated in and which participants addressed the main concerns with open government. [These concerns] are related to the financial costs of providing open data and the potential negative feedback from citizens. The webinar provided participants with low-cost ideas on how they could use information they already had in a different way.

Q: Is the lackluster response indicative, in your opinion, of broader challenges facing the OGP around awareness building and public engagement?

A: Making people aware of the summit and its agenda is just one small piece of the puzzle. OGP is a very young initiative, however, has a great potential for public engagement, which is something that should be further broadened. There should be more energy dedicated to in-country dynamics around Open Government (which would be another piece of the puzzle), and if this is properly done, it will directly impact, positively, the broader awareness and public engagement in OGP internationally. Overall - from the mailing lists and newsletters to the OGP Blog - there is a lot of thinking and efforts put behind awareness raising and engagement.

First Post! 7 Issues to Watch Out For

This year’s OGP summit is a big deal for those involved, partly because the OGP is at something of a crossroads. In its first two years, membership has ballooned from 8 to 60 countries, the first tranche of independent reports evaluating country implementation have been released, and the initiative has attracted an increasing amount of attention among people working on transparency and accountability around the world. All this has provoked hope and criticism, and raised expectations about what the initiative might be able to achieve as it continues to develop.

It has also highlighted a number of critical issues that the partnership will need to address in order maintain its credibility and aspire to actual consequence in countries. There’s been a lot of talk about these issues in recent weeks (and they aren’t new, you can find most of them in accounts of how the partnership was founded), but there’s still a lot more to be said, questions to be answered and negotiations to be had.

Here’s our take on the issues:

  1. Accountability: The OGP architecture seemed to hold a new promise for accountability by placing civil society on equal footing with states. Although OGP member countries are encouraged to develop their country action plans through "a multi-stakeholder, open, and participatory process" the degree to which this actually happens varies, and civil society’s experience using action plans to hold governments to account varies widely. What’s working and what’s not, and does this call for rethinking how action plans get developed and implemented?

  2. Local Networks:The OGP has been encouraging local events to strengthen open government networks. This doesn’t seem to have led to much activity yet, raising questions about how active local communities will be in OGP processes in these countries. What else can the international partnership do to facilitate local community-building and engagement? Or should this be left entirely to local civil society?

  3. Ambition: Commitments in early action plans have varied dramatically in their ambition (from the laudable but impossible, to the already accomplished or non-contentious). To encourage a race to the top, the UK has asked each country to bring a flagship commitment to the October Summit. But country’s incentives to take bold and ambitious commitments are far from clear, and there is a danger of window dressing. We’ll take a look at what gets showcased, and consider the risks.

  4. Civil Society Space: Many governments around the world are actively constraining the political space in which civil society functions as a watchdog and counterpoint to power. Some have suggested that this is taking place in OGP countries, which raises the question of whether the OGP process is capable of supporting real change in state-citizen relations, and whether civil society is capable of performing its OGP role in these countries.

  5. Eligibility: Countries’ OGP eligibility is currently determined by their scores on international governance rankings and handful of subjective indicators. Some have argued that this sets the bar for membership too low, while many countries argue that comparative indices are biased and inappropriate in the first place. What are the most convincing arguments for constraining, expanding or totally rethinking these criteria?

  6. Measurement: Countries’ OGP performance is measured by self-assessment reports and an Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM), which is conducted by national researchers according to a common template. The IRM has now been completed in 8 founding countries with plenty of lessons learned, but there’s still a fundamental tension between the desire for comparable data and country-specific measurement frameworks. What makes most sense and is most useful, for governments, for national civil society, and for the wider community? How can independent reviews lead to better planning and implementation?*

  7. Getting Out of Comfort Zones: As the OGP grows and solidifies it’s footing, it’s coming face to face with a number of issues and areas that it hasn’t dealt with before but can’t ignore. Should the OGP be working to step out of its comfort zones? How does a transparency, tech and accountability movement deal with privacy and  whistleblowing? How should the partnership delimit it’s mandate to avoid being all things to all issues?

We’ll be posting short posts on each of these issues between now and the end of the summit. We’ll aim to combine important background information with running coverage of how the issues are being addressed in panels and in the corridors.

* Disclaimer: The engine room, which is based in Norway, co-authored the Norwegian Independent Reporting Mechanism

TechPresident partners with the engine room to surface and connect emerging tactics and initiatives.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list