Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Open Government Partnership Africa regional meeting in Tanzania. The meeting was entitled “Enhancing Accountability through Open Government”. Alongside this event, I also met with researchers who will be collaborating on a five-country, comparative research project seeking to deepen our understanding of OGP. Tacking back and forth between watching civil society and government engage each other on issues of openness and accountability, and thinking about how to explore these questions in a more systematic way through research, made for a stimulating and thought provoking several days. Here are a few of my reflections, focusing on three related questions:
- The big question for OGP: what difference does it make?
- The big question for reformers: how (and whether) to leverage OGP?
- The big question for research and learning: how to provide insights that guide practice?
What difference does OGP make?
Countries involved in OGP are churning out action plans and commitments at a robust pace. Internationally, OGP has become a flagship initiative that has attracted significant attention (and resources). So OGP is working, as in the wheel is turning, but does that wheel move the openness cart forward? Or is it just spinning in the mud of messy politics? Or worse, just spinning in space? This is the key question for all OGP stakeholders, and there is evidence that these are happening in different and potentially contradictory ways.
For example, in Dar es Salaam last week there was robust dialogue between the Tanzanian government and civil society, particularly around a set of laws the government is advancing that may infringe on civic space in that country. Civil society challenged the content and process of these reforms, and government actors said they were listening (while also leveling some criticisms at civil society). Will they in fact listen? And will this listening result in any changes? This remains to be seen.
Thus, OGP as a space for dialogue between diverse actors is positive. OGP as a way to give civil society a seat at the table can be important. But these shouldn’t be confused with actual influence or results, much less greater accountability. We know OGP involvement is related to a number of tangible outputs, an important (yet small) minority of which are meaningfully advancing open governance, but we know less about how OGP is shaping trust, negotiation, political dynamics, capacities, and all the other important ‘intangibles’ that really matter for advancing responsive and accountable governance over the long term.
How to leverage OGP to advance reform?
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.
Research and learning to improve practice
As I listened to perspectives from civil society and government about OGP, I was thinking of the kinds of research and learning that would meaningfully address the questions raised and would best inform the strategies of pro-reform actors engaged in OGP. I’m excited to be working with a great team of researchers being coordinated by Global Integrity to explore OGP ‘journeys’ across five countries through a comparative framework that will help us make sense of whether and how pro-openness actors have been able to leverage OGP to advance more responsive and accountable governance. This research is not an ‘impact evaluation’, nor just the ‘story’ of OGP, but rather a systematic attempt to analyze the intersection of OGP processes with ‘accountability politics’ on the ground in a way that provides relevant insights to actors involved in OGP more broadly.
As we wrestled with how to operationalize this research endeavor, I reflected on the proposal made for a peer-learning network for African CSOs involved in OGP. In general, I think that evidence and learning a vital for strategic decision-making given the complexity and uncertainty involved in social and political change processes. But will sharing experiences between civil society actors really address the myriad of challenges faced by CSOs seeking to leverage the OGP mechanism in Africa, including closing civic space, narrow/fragmented civil society engagement, and a deep gulf between OGP priorities and those of real citizens? A colleague from an African NGO asked, “Do we really need more sharing of experiences? Or is that just another drain on our time?”
Research and learning should be subject to the same cost-benefit analysis by reform actors as OGP itself, thus it needs to be driven by their priorities and inform their practices and strategies. Our own research and any peer learning should therefore go beyond sharing to reflection and analysis that informs coordinated approaches. Shared political analysis can help unpack the diversity of actors, interests, ideas, power relationships, incentives and capacities that influence how OGP plays out in different country contexts. This analysis, combined with structured reflection – including civil society asking tough questions about OGP and their own approaches to engagement – and information sharing and coordination, could shape broader coalitions and collective strategies needed to most effectively leverage OGP in challenging contexts.
However, do CSOs have the capacities, time, resources, flexibility and organizational culture/leadership to really invest in and benefit from this kind of shared analysis, reflection and strategizing? Or are they driven to be producing tangible outputs and reports, with learning coming on their own time? Civil society organizations need both resources and flexibility to engage meaningfully in internal or shared learning processes, so just opening the space does not guarantee this will be the case, funders must better support these capacities and processes. Yet if a learning and coordination platform could be sustained – building on existing networks and spaces – and used to bring in broader citizen organizations than the ‘usual suspects’, this could indeed strengthen the role of civil society OGP.
In sum, OGP still faces critical questions about whether it is contributing to real accountability. In seeking answers to these questions, we should link learning meaningfully to practice and support pro-reform actors to analyze, reflect, strategize, coordinate and make their own judgements about how to best leverage OGP processes…and whether engaging with OGP is worth the risks and costs. Having a seat at the table by itself does not constitute real participation, much less influence, and civil society actors are increasingly clear about the tradeoffs involved.