The Closed But Open Government Partnership Paradox

A few months ago I wrote a geopolitical analysis of the newly launched Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral network of reformers from governments and advocates from civil society organizations that are trying to expand the concept and implementation of “open government.” The reaction to this blog post was funny; at least it was funny after I was assured that I wouldn’t lose my job over it. My friends and colleagues from the tech-centered open government community (the projects we documented at Technology for Transparency Network, the world view articulated in this O’Reilly book) interpreted the post as mostly optimistic, though rooted in healthy skepticism. My friends and colleagues involved in the partnership itself (they from the land of institutions) thought I was launching an unwarranted and poorly articulated attack on an initiative that had not yet actually begun.

I was hardly the only person to examine the geopolitical context behind the OGP. A few days later Greg Michener — who helped me develop some of my initial reflections — published his own analysis of the OGP and US foreign policy. TechPresident picked up the meme too. A couple months later David Eaves extended the argument, describing the OGP as the “beginning of open vs. closed.” (Much of the world view of my former employer, Open Society Foundations, is rooted in the analysis of Karl Popper who described “the beginning of open vs. closed” in 1945.) Even The Economist ventured to answer whether the OGP is a “transparency conspiracy,” ultimately dismissing it as “really nothing new or major.”

There was never any reaction from the organizers of the OGP to this geopolitical analysis. In fact, they often seem downright allergic to the discussion of geopolitics.

In hindsight, my initial analysis was off the mark. I pondered whether the partnership would be a “game changer or symbolic slogan” when, in fact, its aspirations and potential achievements are far more humble. The best analysis of what the OGP has achieved to date comes not from the OGP, which is severely limited in its staff and communication capacity, but from transparency analyst Owen Barder and his colleague Stephanie Majerowicz.

I believe that Barder and Majerowicz rightly diagnose OGP’s humble ambitions, despite its rather grandiose rhetoric. Essentially, it seems to me, the architects of the OGP want to create a club for pro-open government reformers to compete with one another in order to make the most significant and meaningful commitments toward transparency. So far it seems to have made some early wins. Last week the US joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative to bring it in line with the other OGP steering committee members (and giving Hillary Clinton ammunition to criticize China). Now, write Barder and Majerowicz, the UK is feeling pressure to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative after the US joined in September. Representatives from the Brazilian government, meanwhile, have claimed that its membership in the OGP was a significant factor in finally getting a decent access to information law approved.

This sorta “my transparency is better than your transparency” friendly competition is precisely what the OGP hopes to encourage, but with much broader participation.

That gets to the crux of the community architecture: Where do you draw the line in that fuzzy space between governments that are truly interested in becoming more open and those who merely want the badge of open government without doing the reform work? At this week’s OGP meeting in Brasília I saw both. Meanwhile there was much murmuring, but little frank discussion, about a recently passed “secrecy bill” in South Africa and a similar proposed bill in Indonesia — both members of the OGP steering committee. According to several observers on the FOIAnet mailing list, if member countries of the OGP are able to pass such anti-transparency legislation without losing status in this pro-transparency club, it will signal to other prospective countries that they too can wear the open government badge while backsliding on their transparency commitments, ultimately damaging both the reputation and catalytic potential of the initiative.

Finally, the OGP is described as a partnership between civil society and governments rather than a government-led initiative. That is a lofty and important ideal, but it is clear that, so far, governments are in the driver’s seat — even in those rare cases of very active civil society participation such as Indonesia and Tanzania. In fact, at this week’s meeting few national civil society organizations were present at all. One government representative said that civil society organizations in her country are free to give input, but that it is the government that is directing her country’s participation. While we could place blame for the lack of civil society decision-making on the organizers of the OGP, or on the governments, it must also be recognized that it is up to civil society to participate more actively and forcefully in these discussions. US-based OpenTheGovernment.org, which is hiring a consultant specifically to boost civil society participation in the crafting and monitoring of US OGP commitments is one example of constructive efforts to strengthen the participation of civil society.

Several of my friends criticize the OGP for being yet another initiative that preaches openness and transparency without being open and transparent itself. I believe their diagnosis is mostly correct, but the OGP’s exclusiveness and opacity is an inherent paradox that might make it more effective in stimulating pro-transparency competition among member countries. After all, it seems that the US joined the IATI not to please civil society, but to put it in a position to criticize China’s overseas development (good ol’ geopolitics). Similarly, civil society in Brazil has been advocating for a strong access to information law for over a decade now. But analysts say that President Rousseff made its passage a priority because she was embarrassed that Brazil was a co-chair of the OGP’s Steering Committee and yet didn’t have an FOI law, one of the main criteria to join.

The OGP is just the latest of many international and regional transparency initiatives, including the United Nations Convention Against Corruption and the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention. What distinguishes the OGP in theory is the active participation of civil society, but what seems to distinguish it in practice is the friendly competition between governments to each make more impressive commitments that they can highlight at international fora. We will see how this dynamic evolves at the next OGP annual conference in April in Brazil, which will add a few dozen new countries to the mix.

1 Comment

  1. Nice summary of the existing state of thinking on the OGP, David. A good resource I’ll be using in the future. Two points of interest. First, I think you’re right to point out that something must be done immediately about the OGP’s African and Asian aces –South Africa and Indonesia– which have both enacted ‘closed’ legislation subsequent to their commitments to the OGP. This incongruency gives reason for a sharp public critique from OGP organizers, if not a demotion from the Steering Committee. Second, it is no wonder governments are taking the lead; the NGO community has always found it difficult to mobilize as a unified actor due to competition, fractiousness, and the lack of coordinating mechanisms. “The networking mechanism” is an insufficient remedy to this issue. NGOs need a coordinating mechanism –one in each country– to interact more vigorously with their governments and represent their civil societies within the OGP. NGOs are key to the success of the OGP because they operate outside of the realm of international diplomacy…

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