NI Open Government Network Blog – Open Government Partnership Global Summit 2019
Written by Connor McLean
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” – speaker at OGP Summit quoting Winston Churchill
This year’s OGP Summit was hosted in the Canadian capital, Ottawa. The sixth international gathering of its kind and the second to take place on the North American continent.
2,200 delegates from 130 countries gathered in the city for a three day summit that featured over 100 sessions of talks, workshops, panels and discussions on a broad range of topics.
Representatives from across the four regions of the UK Open Government Network were in attendance, as were a delegation of civil servants from Scottish and Westminster government departments.
The main themes of the conference were “Participation”, “Inclusion” and “Impact”.
Opening the Summit
“For citizens to trust government, government needs to show that they trust their citizens with information.” – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
The opening ceremony kicked off with a welcome from Indigenous Leader of the Algonquin, Claudette Comanda and was followed by a series of talks from OGP Steering Committee Co-Chairs Nathaniel Heller and Joyce Murray, OGP CEO Sanjay Pradhan and others, as well as a talk show-style interview with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau who voiced his support for open government, “in an age of skepticism in the public good of our institutions, OGP is rebuilding trust…”
“Our own cherished OGP is not immune from this authoritarian virus. Our own research shows that civic space is closing in OGP countries.” – Aidan Eyakuze, OGP Steering Committee Member
One of the more sombering topics at the summit was the closure of civic space throughout OGP nations. Whilst there are “more democratic societies now than in any point in human history”, the CIVICUS Monitor indicates that 109 countries have closed, repressed or obstructed civic space. Speakers at the conference also bore witness to a shocking increase in the number of attacks on political activists, environmental defenders and journalists in recent years.
Also, rather alarmingly, OGP Steering Committee Member Aidan Eyakuze had his passport seized – for the severe crime of commissioning an opinion poll on Tanzanian President John Magufuli – though fortunately he was able to join us briefly via livestream.
Aidan Eyakuze’s “avatar” was a novel use of technology, but also served as a reminder of the authoritarian excesses of political power
A more positive development in recent years is the emergence of deliberative processes, including citizens’ assemblies/juries and “reference panels”. Jane Suiter from Dublin City University shared the successes of the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland which has helped break deadlock on a number of controversial political issues. Peter MacLeod from MASS LBP also provided several examples of reference panels from British Columbia and Ontario, Canada but cautioned that these initiatives can fall out of political favour, and so continued support from citizens and elected officials is vital.
Open Government in the Digital Age
We live in an era commonly referred to as the “digital age” – or, more pertinently here – “the information age”. The proliferation of computers, smart phones and tablets in our workplaces and in our homes has enabled citizens to access a vast wealth of information at the touch of a button.
Through the power of the internet, governments across the world can communicate, provide data and information to their citizens with relative ease – unfortunately however, governments have been slow to realise the potential of digital.
There were however some excellent examples of innovation on display at the summit – for example, Taiwan, where the government there has created an intuitive, user-friendly website that serves as a “one-stop-shop”, compiling hundreds of useful datasets relating to health, the environment, public procurement and more.
It is worth bearing in mind that whilst there are many countries where internet is widely accessible to all, many countries have large rural populations with inadequate access. Several attendees at the “Making Data Work for an Open Government” event warned that it is important that “no-one is left behind” – governments should provide data (free of charge) and in a variety of formats (not just digital!) to ensure that it is accessible to all.
“Our fight is for citizens – at a time when an astonishing 64 percent of citizens living in democracies believe that their elected government rarely or never acts in the public interest! We need to look beyond the ballot box to deliver on the promise of the ballot box.” – Sanjay Pradhan OGP CEO
A reoccurring theme of the OGP Summit was that of “trust”. Justin Trudeau stated in his interview that not only should government seek to regain the trust of its citizens, “governments should trust their citizens, and treat them as adults.”
At a session on Freedom of Information, several attendees voiced their frustration with their governments – FOI requests were often subject to obstruction and unreasonable delays. This is one such example where trust could be improved.
Trust can be restored in a variety of other ways too. Beyond the ballot box, governments can involve its citizens in decisions which affect their day-to-day lives – for example, the city of Paris has a €100m fund devoted to participatory budgeting. Governments can make better decisions by improving citizen engagement; through meaningful public consultation, citizens’ assemblies, the creation of online spaces for citizens to voice their ideas and concerns. There are very good case studies for all of these – often the only missing ingredient is political will.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. I don’t want to be on the menu” – Randy Boissonnault MP, Special Advisor to the Canadian PM on LGBTQ2 issues
The Canadian government has been lauded for having an “inclusive and gender-balanced” cabinet – and other progressive examples exist elsewhere – but a wider effort needs to be made to increase the participation of women in politics. Although women account for 50% of the global population, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments is only 24% (according to The World Bank).
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Chair of the Elders delivered a keynote speech on inclusion and gender. “Open government has always been much more than transparency, it’s about inclusion, bringing in voices that have been marginalised and ignored. It’s about justice.” Mary Robinson stated that of the almost 4,000 OGP commitments to date, only 2% include gender equality – “this is not good enough”.
Feminist Open Government (FOGO) called for more OGP commitments on gender equality
This year, 16 open government youth ambassadors from across the world were invited to the OGP summit. It was pointed out that 50% of the world’s population is under 30, and yet, it was argued that young people are often overlooked. Increasingly, we are seeing younger people engaged in political issues – e.g. School Strikes for Climate. The ongoing debate on lowering the voting age to 16 (as in Wales) is an acknowledgement of this reality. As such, OGP should seek commitments on opening government to the younger generation.
The creation of an “Open Government Youth Collective” was announced at the summit to ensure a continued youth voice within the OGP.
OGP Youth Delegates highlighted the importance of involving youth in the decision-making process
See you again in 2021!
At the closing of the OGP Summit, the announcement that there would not be an OGP summit in 2020 was (perhaps surprisingly) met with applause. I could be wrong, but perhaps this response may be interpreted as follows – whilst there is value in discussing and reflecting upon what we have achieved thus far (as we did at length!) there is something to be said for “less talk and more action”.
There is a lot more work to be done.
Several sessions at the Summit were livestreamed – to watch the recordings, please click here.
The first Open Government Partnership Global Report has been published and can be viewed here.