The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

28 thoughts on “The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

  1. Augusto Herrmann

    That’s an interesting point of view, David!
    I, for one, had’nt thought of that. If there is, indeed, this ulterior motive for making countries compete for openness, I’m all for it.

    Actually, I was a bit pleasantly surprised by the United States take on this. When the people responsible were preparing the Declaration of Principles [1] of the Open Government Partnership, they asked for our input, representing the Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management of Brazil. Among our additions to the text, was a recognition of the importance of open standards for the interoperability of government information systems and facilitate access by citizens to public data.

    I, in particular, expected some resistence, since many US companies hold proprietary standards, and that could be considered an advantage for them, but all of our contributions to the declaration made it mostly unchanged to the final text. I wasn’t present in the negotiation though, maybe this acceptance was the work of our diplomats. Anyway kudos to all of them (US included) for the work! :)

    [1] http://www.opengovpartnership.org/open-government-declaration

    Reply
  2. Tracey P. Lauriault

    There are many precursors to this:

    GlobalMap – http://www.iscgm.org/cgi-bin/fswiki/wiki.cgi which was established in 1996
    Global Spatial Data Infrastructure – http://www.gsdi.org/ - 1st converence 1996
    Iinternational Geographic Union – http://www.igu-net.org/uk/igu.html - Official start 1922, early collaborations 1871
    International Cartographic Association – http://icaci.org/ - Founded in 1959

    These are the players – national mapping organizations – who brought us open data, and they were all collaborating on developing standards, access to data policies, promoting interoperability, preserving data, developed the first data catalogs and data metadata, in addition to working with private, government public and NGO sectors to create common maps and infrastructures to facilitate social, geographic, industrial, economic and environmental planning.  Their work has been ongoing and under the radar as it is just part of doing good governance and good business.  Further, resouces (lake, forests, watershed, coastline, etc) that is crosses territorial boundaries can only be managed well if datasets and software speak to each other and seamlessly can be interwoven.  But that aside, there also has to be the willingness for people to want to work together and co-manage.  The discourse on access to public sector information (PSI) comes from these folks.

    To that list above I would add:
    The International Statistical Institute – http://isi-web.org/ First congress in 1853 which over time set the standards for how censuses are conducted and developed some of the international classification systems by which countries have agreed to count labour and vital statistics.

    These were not about containement, they were about scientists, geographers, statisticians trying to find ways to collaborate and of course back in the day colonies and empires trying to manage and inventory their assetss/acquisitions for extraction, exploitation and control issues.  This thinking has evolved.

    I think more evidence to about the containment argument is required, for instance some explicit documents that support that ideological stance or some statements to that effect.  The California Ideology is an intersting one to consider http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/theory-californianideology.html.  There is also a small book on the geopolitics of information – http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/34282/john-c-campbell/the-geopolitics-of-information-how-western-culture-dominates-the and then there is the fabulous work of Peter Hugill http://geography.tamu.edu/profile/PHugill who is one of the foremost contemporary authorities on the history and geopolitics of information communication infrastructures.  His books are full of great facutal intrigues that I often in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon http://nealstephenson.com/reamde/.

    I find the line of thinking you are introducing interesting and compelling but would need more evidence before I would label it a containement strategy.

    You’ve always got good stuff to think about.

    Cheers
    Tracey

    Reply
  3. Salimah Y. Ebrahim

    There is a lot to unpack here, Dave but you’re throwing out a compelling idea. Not sure the absentee list accurately reflects the “closed”/”out”, nor that it completely replaces the old axis list but certainly some familiar characters show up and OPG will certainly draw new lines. Many more questions/conversations to come.

    Oh, and JordAn (sp!) – for many obvious reasons, it’s always one of the first countries that catches my eye!

    s.

    Reply
  4. Chris Taggart

    Another take on the ’21st century containment strategy’ could be that governments are trying to contain the pesky bottom-up open data movement. In the UK the proposed Public Data Corporation is heading down the embrace & extinguish route as far as open data goes, and there are other worrying signs too.

     It’s notable that the OGP seems to have set such a low bar to joining it, that it seems more of a self-selection club (that Russia, China, India have declined to join) rather than an attempt to have countries compete on the openness scale. Spain, for example, doesn’t even have an freedom of information law, which is surely a prerequisite for openness.

    This doesn’t contradict your central argument — that it’s an attempt to forge a new geopolitical axis — just that openness is more of a moniker than a guiding principle. Incidentally, I believe the UK has refused to sign EITI ;-(

    Reply
    1. Herb Lainchbury

      Software enthusiasts are all too familiar with the embrace, extend, extinguish pattern.  In spite of the very cool video that accompanied this announcement the sudden to forming of this partnership seemed almost “too good to be true” to me, magical even.

      Optimism with a healthy touch of skepticism is prudent here.  Incumbents rarely challenge their own status quo.  I think it is useful to remain diligent in our use of the words “open”, and “free”.  We will be labelled idealist perhaps, but better to be labelled and open than stall our progress toward openness.

      I’m all for governments collaborating to get us there, but this sort of grouping may serve to eliminate competition more than encourage it.  In any case, to paraphrase John Locke – the actions of governments will be the best interpreters of their thoughts.

      Reply
    2. Augusto Herrmann

      Chris,

      having a freedom of information law is *not* a prerequisite for participating in the Open Government Partnership. In fact, Brazil, which is co-chairing the partnership for the first year, also still does not have one. A bill for that purpose, however, is in congress and due to be voted hopefully soon – and having *that* is a prerequisite.

      Reply
      1. Rrs

        Just to clarify: the prerequisite relating to access to information, as all the other three prerequisites, has a tiered scoring system, as explained in the OGP Portal. So, scores in each prerequisite range from 0 to 4. In the case of access to information, the tiers are having a bill under consideration by the parliament, having constitutional provisions guaranting the right to information and having a access to information law enacted (highest score).

        Countries like Brazil and Spain that do not have an enacted law may still score in this prerequisite if they fall within any of the other tiers (lower scores though in this prerequisite).

        I hope that clarifies a little.

        On the Declaration of Principles, it should be added that it was not just an effort of diplomats, but also (and mostly) of the Co-Chairs of the OGP.

        Reply
        1. Augusto Herrmann

          Thanks for the very precise clarification.

          I knew of the tiered score system (which is described on http://www.opengovpartnership.org/eligibility ), and that both having a bill under consideration by congress and having constitutional provisions for access to information rights would score points.However, I was under the impression that a country couldn’t be admitted if it scored zero points in regards to the access to information criteria. Reading again the elegibility criteria, I can see I was mistaken. Even though, a country reaching a 75% overall score with zero points on one criteria means it has maximum score in all three of the other ones – an unlikely scenario, I think.

          Cheers

          Reply
  5. DK

    “a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent *enough* to
    provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a
    state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.”  (asterisks added)

    The part that tripped me up was the phrase “transparent enough.” What are the political-economic boundaries between “enough” and “too much” transparency?  

    Reply
  6. Mtega

    Interesting argument, but I can’t bring myself to accept that geopolitical containment lies behind the Open Government Partnership. 

    There’s enough of a genuine open government movement out there, which has been growing for several years, to explain the rationale behind this new initiative, without needing to bring geopolitics in.  And since countries such as the US, UK and Canada are applying the principles of open government to themselves as well, why not take it at face value?

    Some more specific points:

    People have been saying for years that the voting process is only a small part of what it means to be democratic, I don’t see anything new there. “This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.”Leaders in many countries would respond to this argument (and do) by saying bring on the Chinese then.And though it’s hardly a major issue, do you really think there are a lot of African countries on the list of OGP countries? I make it five, leaving around 50 on the outside. Yes, “the Chinese won’t”. But isn’t that a just the way things are, rather than a comparison the US government is deliberately trying to draw attention to? If it’s not deliberate, your post becomes an interesting analysis of a (probably beneficial) geopolitical side effect of the initiative. But that’s a very different argument. 

    Reply
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  11. Rakesh

    Interesting. But as someone involved in the OGP process– either I’ve been hoodwinked all along as to the true purpose of all this, or you simply ascribe way too much geopolitical intent and grand US driven design, that among others marginalizes the role played by other countries and civil society actors in bringing it about. BTW both Russia and Pakistan are eligible to join the OGP

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  13. osimod

    Interesting and insightful. Another additional explanation is that making international commitments would help the Obama administration maintain the Open Government activities also in face of reduced budget and maybe a different president next year.
    In other words it will be easier to justify an Open Gov portal as it’s part of an international committment.

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