Points of View 22nd June 2015

Enhancing Accountability through Open Government? Learning about and Leveraging OGP | Politics, Governance and Development

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

Brendan Halloran has posted some interesting reflections about OGP on his blog following last month’s Africa Regional Meeting. This section on civil society leveraging OGP particularly chimed with me:

“Throughout the meeting in Tanzania, civil society members asked themselves the question: is participation in OGP worth it? And if not, when does the time come to walk away? This is healthy. Reformers shouldn’t blindly assume OGP is a net positive across all contexts. Civil society actors involved in OGP, and government reformers as well, must ask themselves whether OGP helps them advance their priorities for responsive and accountable governance, or whether it simply sucks up their time and resources without leading to results.

Reform advocates must weigh the costs and benefits of OGP involvement and come to their own conclusion. Increasingly, civil society actors are saying that a seat at the table is not enough, especially if OGP is being used by some actors in government as a way to ‘manage’ civil society participation (who is invited, what level of engagement, etc.), control the ‘openness’ agenda (more e-governance than real accountability mechanisms), and to showcase a visible commitment to reform while backsliding in other important areas that are kept away from the international spotlight.

In addition to asking pointed questions about the benefits and costs of participation in OGP, civil society organizations must take a hard look in the mirror as well. Too often the CSOs engaged in OGP are drawn from a fairly narrow ‘clique’ of professional NGOs, often interested in open data, freedom of information, and other related topics. Many have called for a broadening of the civil society actors involved in OGP. I would go a step further. In Tanzania and elsewhere, governments have questioned the credibility of NGOs, mostly funded by foreign money, as representatives of the broader population. Although this accusation is often used to deflect legitimate criticisms brought by civil society, it also has some truth to it. Professional NGOs should consider how they can do more to facilitate citizen engagement with OGP, through linkages to membership-based organizations like cooperatives, unions, faith-based organizations, etc. Drawing on the ideas of Jonathan Fox, coalitions that enable national advocacy with geographically and socially inclusive representation could be more effective at leveraging OGP.

Bringing more popular organizations into OGP would have many benefits. First, it would combat criticisms of ‘unrepresentative and unaccountable’ NGOs claiming to represent citizens. Second, it would bolster the negotiating power of civil society within OGP. Third, it would help bring OGP ‘to the people’ and make sure their priorities and concerns are heard and incorporated, both by NGOs and government actors. Strengthening engagement between professional NGOs and broader organizations and movements is vital for advancing accountability more broadly, but could also have significant benefits for OGP as well. Ultimately, if OGP is to contribute meaningfully to improved governance, this will involve strengthening the ‘accountability ecosystem’ of actors and processes that OGP intersects with in each country.”

Read the full post on Brendan’s blog:

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