As some readers of this blog know, Global Integrity is taking on a public role as part of the emerging Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative. We wanted to take some time to explain why we are getting involved with the OGP and how it might affect some of our other work. We have a second reason for this post: public communication about OGP to-date has been poor at best (for reasons we discuss below), so we hope to clarify some confusion about the origins and aims of the initiative to the extent we can. We certainly aren’t in charge of OGP, but we have been privy to some of the important discussions along the way.
Global Integrity’s role
First, what is the Open Government Partnership? The OGP is a voluntary process by which governments commit to innovative open government reforms as part of a “race to the top.” Local civil society plays an important role in consulting with their government around potential commitments, and will also be monitoring government performance once commitments have been publicly announced. Eight governments have already signed up and are serving on the first OGP steering committee: Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The new OGP website, though thin in content, provides some additional background.
We’ve been involved with the discussions around OGP since its earliest days, and have agreed, at the request of the OGP steering committee, to take on two roles. The first, along with the World Bank Institute, is to serve as the OGP’s “Networking Mechanism,” which seeks to connect OGP governments with peer governments as well as with non-governmental and private providers of expertise in the areas of open government and transparency. The aim is to provide governments interested in joining OGP with expert advice and technical support in their development of innovative OGP commitments. Here’s an example of how this might play out in practice:
Country X aspires to be at the vanguard of reform when it comes to transparent management of its natural resources, in particular its extractive resources. Already an EITI member, the government is savvy around issues of extractives transparency but approaches the OGP Networking Mechanism for assistance in thinking through specific sub-national transparency reforms in key regions of the country that are mineral-rich. The Networking Mechanism Case Manager connects the government with both the Revenue Watch Institute as well as two local-level NGOs in neighboring countries that have worked with their respective local and national governments to develop and implement best practices at the sub-national level for promoting extractives transparency. The Case Manager also connects a tech company with a local NGO that is interested in using geo-referencing software to help Country X map its natural resource concessions in tandem with other local NGOs. Following intensive virtual and in-person consultations with RWI, the tech company, and the local NGOs, the government crafts a cutting-edge set of sub-national transparency reforms that it commits to in March 2012.
The second role we have taken on pertains to technology. Global Integrity is overseeing the technology contractor retained to develop the OGP website, which will become an important repository of country commitments as well as an important destination for up-to-date discussions and debates about the open government movement globally. In addition, we will likely be hosting the OGP’s future web manager at the Global Integrity offices in Washington, DC.
Where things stand
We are going to be very busy in the run-up to the UN General Assembly meetings in September, when the eight steering committee governments will publicly announce their initial OGP commitments while simultaneously inviting dozens of additional government to join them in March 2012 in Brazil with their own open government commitments. Our immediate priority is to begin surveying governments as well as NGOs and private companies to begin building rosters of both “supply” and “demand,” as we outlined above. Many of you will be hearing from us to explore whether and how you and your organizations/governments might want to get involved with OGP moving forward.
In addition, our colleague Jonathan Eyler-Werve is working with online design firm EchoDitto to flesh out the OGP website before the September meetings. Our aim is to have the site become a useful place where country commitments are tagged according to a common taxonomy; countries’ progress on fulfilling their commitments is monitored transparently by both local civil society and international experts; and the open government community has another online “water cooler” around which to congregate, chat, and debate.
Misconceptions, and our history with OGP
In our admittedly on-again, off-again involvement with OGP, it’s fair to say that public communication about this initiative has not exactly been fabulous. I attribute much of this, perhaps 95% of it, to the sheer speed at which the initiative has developed and the lack of adequate staffing until recent months. From what I have seen, there’s been no secret cabal of governments and NGOs trying to cook the OGP up in secret. There’s simply been a lack of attention to some basic care and feeding of the broader open government community, which I know many are seeking to rectify immediately.
While the “official” history has yet to be written, here’s what I know from my experience. Hopefully no one yells at me for putting some of these details out there.
OGP began in the summer of 2010 as an idea of a small group of NGOs, governance donors (many of which were involved with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative) and the U.S. government (specifically, Samantha Power and Jeremy Weinstein at the National Security Council). That group began discussing the idea of convening a small multi-stakeholder meeting to discuss the global open government movement. At this point, no international multilateral initiative as such was envisioned—the idea was to convene a brainstorming discussion between a small group of leading open government practitioners from government and civil society to discuss possibilities for collective action, whether in the form of a declaration, experience sharing, and/or a more formal initiative.
The USG and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative approached a small group of transparency/open government practitioners that fall to tease out whether and how interested governments and NGOs might move ahead with developing what is now OGP. This resulted in a small brainstorming session in January 2011 in Washington, DC, hosted by the U.S. government. Some of the groups in the room during that session were the Open Society Foundation, International Budget Partnership, the National Security Archives, World Resources Institute, Twaweza (Tanzania), Africa Center for Open Governance (Kenya), INESC (Brazil), IMCO (Mexico), AidInfo (Ethiopia), and Global Integrity (though we were not present at all of the meetings or a part of all of the conversations). Some of the governments included Brazil, Indonesia, Philippines, Mexico, Norway and the U.K.
The group decided that there was significant appetite to develop a collective initiative around open government that involved new concrete commitments from participating countries, a high level declaration of open government principles, and an independent reporting mechanism. The NGOs and governments decided to organize themselves into a Steering Committee to oversee this initiative’s development, which helps to explain (in part) its current membership. Based on strong interest from the U.S. and Brazil, these two governments were nominated as the initial co-chairs.
Interestingly, the model that was agreed upon tried to mimic an early-Obama White House success: the Nuclear Security Summit. There, as with OGP, President Obama made an early call for commitments and invited governments to come back in a year with concrete reform proposals. Thus, the President’s call at the UNGA in September 2010 for countries to come back a year later with concrete commitments around open government.
The White House saw that Nuclear Security Summit work well, and other countries and NGOs agreed that a voluntary, “race to the top” approach for OGP would work best to help drive country engagement and real reform.
A big problem that was clear early on (to me, at least) was the initial lack of staffing behind the initiative. When the brainstorming group decided to launch a new initiative in late-January 2011, the U.S. and Brazilian governments had no dedicated capacity to help staff such an ambitious initiative on such a short timeline. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative donor collaborative offered in January 2011 to support an initial staff person for OGP. Over a period of days this turned into one Julie McCarthy, a former deputy director of the Revenue Watch Institute, who came on board in January 2011 to drive the development of OGP day-to-day. It was only after Julie’s arrival, in my view, that OGP really began to take shape.
OGP’s “original sin,” as I have heard it described by those involved from the earliest days, was in its self-selection of the steering committee. There was no science to this; officials and NGOs were simply looking for interested and willing peers to lend support to the process. Moving forward, there will hopefully be a more transparent and public way of nominating steering committee members. A first step in that direction will be changes to the co-chair slots, which will happen in 2012.
OGP’s potential and challenges
Will OGP cure all ills when it comes to accountable and transparent government around the world? Of course not. Could it help? I think so. Even if only some governments develop and implement “stretch” commitments as part of the process, that’s better than no reform efforts at all.
Several challenges remain, in my opinion:
- The selection criteria used to determine which governments are invited into the OGP process leave much to be desired. The idea of using impartial third-party data is great, but the data being used currently are either spotty or suspect in their precision. The Open Budget Index, for example, only covers 100+ countries while the asset disclosure data being used was only generated once and is unlikely to ever be repeated. What will the OGP do with reforming governments who now pass the test in real life but failed it 3 years ago when that particular data gathering exercise occurred? Reforms to the selection process are already needed and should involve public input, not just the steering committee’s ideas.
- Public communication about OGP has been a mess, but I think we’ve hit the low point. The steering committee has blessed the idea of a permanent three-person “task force” or quasi-secretariat to staff the initiative moving forward, which should help to alleviate much of the communications pressure. Steering Committee members will also begin to play more of a public outreach role on the initiative in the coming months.
- Public monitoring of country commitments remains very much TBD. Those involved with OGP agree that: a) civil society (both domestic groups and international experts) should monitor their government’s commitments under OGP, and b) that the results of that monitoring should be public. But the devil will be in the details; as someone who does governance assessments for a living, this will be a very complex process that will likely require far more effort than what we anticipate today.
As David Sasaki wrote recently, “Open Government Partnership: Game Changer or Symbolic Slogan?” David is correct in saying that it’s too early to tell. Here at Global Integrity, we share the healthy skepticism but are willing to make a bet on OGP. Let me know if you want to as well.
— Nathaniel Heller