What Rio+20 Can Teach the Open Government Partnership

Global Integrity
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If you work in the universe of international affairs and also happen to live under a rock, you might have missed the hundreds of headlines this past week lamenting the abject failure of the Rio+20 sustainable development summit. Fifty thousand-plus folks gathered in Rio to figure out how to finally make sustainable development work, and apparently what they got was a 283-paragraph long communique that was chock full of empty rhetoric and short on (if not lacking entirely) actionable specifics to make The Future We Want happen. Politics As Usual 1, Planet Earth 0.

I am blissfully ignorant of the politics of international environmental policy, so I won't pretend to know what the dynamics were that led to the Rio debacle. But I am slightly more familiar with the international politics of transparency and anti-corruption, and I think there are some valuable lessons for those practitioners to glean from the Rio mess, particularly in the context of the nascent Open Government Partnership.

The first is that treaties and internationally binding commitments are on the way out, if they aren't entirely impractical already, as a means for solving collective action problems. As governments and nation-states continue to lose significance and power on the international stage, it's individuals (through social networks) and private firms (through their increasingly dominant economic positions) that matter more than ever for making progress on the toughest societal challenges.

In this respect, OGP has one thing going for it at the moment: it remains, for the time being, a largely personality driven initiative that owes its early success not to governments per se signing up, but to the reform-minded personalities within those governments — and their relationships with each other — that are driving their bosses towards open government reforms. Do you think Kenya would be an early part of OGP if not for Dr. Bitange Ndemo being Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, or that the US would have launched the experiment if not for Samantha Powers and Jeremy Weinstein working (formerly) in the National Security Council?  While the OGP is forced to embrace some of the traditional trappings of a classic multilateral initiative, it has avoided drawn out negotiations over communiques and other low return on investment exercises. It will do well to continue this habit indefinitely.

On the flip side, the OGP experiment has moved forward with virtually no meaningful involvement from large multinational companies. For OGP to work as a long-run agency of change, this will need to change. In particular, the OGP Steering Committee needs to find a way, quickly, to engage with the likes of Google, Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Siemens, Tata, McKinsey, and other large firms that have a vested interest in the future of open and citizen-centric government. It's great to have the many dozens of small- and medium-sized companies already signed up to work with OGP governments under the OGP Networking Mechanism, but at some point the OGP will need to mature from a governments + civil society initiative to a truly innovative governments + civil society + big business paradigm. Some serious thought needs to be given to how those firms can more meaningfully engage with OGP, including by serving on the Steering Committee.

Second, physical summits are increasingly a waste of time, money, and political capital. When I worked in the State Department, a former boss of mine once quipped that, "There are no bad summits." But in the internet era, it's become more and more difficult for international gatherings to gloss over the fact that some summits are, actually, pretty bad. This, if nothing else, is what the failures of Copenhagen and Rio have (painfully) taught us. I personally can live with a once-a-year ministerial-level gathering, but I hope that the OGP remains averse to grandiose conferences that distract from the really important work: strengthening country Action Plans through meaningful consultation with domestic civil society. No conference can do that. Let's keep the focus on the small (but meaningful) stuff.

Third, we should give some critical thought to whether seeking global consensus on really complicated issues (like open government, or climate change, or sustainable development) is worth the cost, and whether alternative mechanisms exist to achieve similar (or better) results. Instead of wasting years negotiating a diluted text that no one is happy with, OGP's approach of encouraging a "race to the top" collection of nationally developed, unique commitments does seem like the future. While there are serious risks of free riding and missing the mark entirely with such commitments, a race to the top approach offers a potentially faster path towards reform and at vastly lower costs in terms of time and political capital expended. Little wonder that the OGP approach drew its procedural inspiration from the surprisingly successful Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 (another race to the top initiative) that arguably did more to advance the cause of nuclear security and safety than the past decade of negotiations around the (classically multilateral and rather stuck) Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

Rio+20 ended badly. But that doesn't mean that other international initiatives are necessarily doomed to failure if they take bold steps to break out of the mold.

— Nathaniel Heller

Image Credit: UN ISDR

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

2 comments on “What Rio+20 Can Teach the Open Government Partnership

  • David Sasaki says:

    I agree that individuals and companies are important actors in international bodies that seek reforms to be implemented at the national level. But I fail to see how OGP is more driven by individual personalities than Rio+20, which seemed to have its share of Samantha Powers and Jorge Hage’s. Rather I think there is a trade-off in terms of participation: if you only invite a few reformist-minded government representatives to participate, then there is a greater likelihood that reforms will be passed, but less of a likelihood that they will be implemented — especially in other gov’t agencies. (Which is probably why the US gov’t brought down Ken Salazar and his team from Interior, but we didn’t see the same from other governments.)

    It’s also important to note that the roles that, say, oil companies play in environmental policy and the roles that IT companies play in open government policy are very different. I would imagine that Cisco and IBM would be only too happy to participate in the OGP — fertile ground to sell new, expensive products to governments that want to be seen as innovative (rather than necessarily becoming accountable). Personally I’m not against the participation of Silicon Valley (calling them multinationals makes them somehow sound international) in the OGP, but once again, it’s important to recognize the likely trade-off: governments would feel less compelled to deal with domestic IT groups like Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente and MySociety.

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