It is hard to sum up what is happening at the Open Government Partnership this year. Whether it is the geography the conference covers (over 40 countries), the range of issues affected by openness, or the sheer number of people, there is a great deal to wrap your arms around.
Here are some reflections after a day and a half.
First is the sheer size of the conference. I’m told there are roughly 1200 registered participants. And you feel it. The buzz is louder, the crowds are bigger, and the number of people you don’t know is larger.
For one, governments get to see what others are up to, but more important are the connections made among civil society members. In many ways the OGP’s biggest benefit may be the way it builds capacity by enabling civil society organizations and individuals to learn from one another and trade stories.
The potential for this is particularly true (and remains unrealized) between civil society communities that do not tend to interact. There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.
Moreover, concerns among access to information types that the OGP will be dominated by technology issues feel overplayed, every “official” civil society representative I witnessed respond to a government presentation on its OGP goals was someone out of the Access to Information community, not the Gov.20/tech community. In a real sense, it is the access to information community that has greater influence over the discourse at the OGP and so concerns about the reverse feel, to some measure, overblown.
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there are some very early debates about the future of the OGP, particularly in relation to its members. The articles of governance published yesterday by the OGP do lay out a process for removing members, but the criteria is vague regarding many issues the virtually all civil society members feel strongly about. The OGP has already demonstrated that the term open can capture the imaginations of a broad group of people and is a desirable trait to which governments want to be associated. In this regard it has some realized and a great deal more potential of being an important carrot that can provoke governments to make commitments around openness that they might not have otherwise make or prioritize. But the stick – which is essential to many civil society participants – remains still somewhat vague. And without it, it is hard to imagine the project working. If, once you are in the OGP, it does not much matter what you do, then the project loses a great deal of its meaning, at least, based on conversations I had, to many of its civil society participants.
And the tests on this issue are real and immediate.
South Africa – a OGP steerting committee member(!) – is in the process of enacting the “Protection of Information Bill” which effectively makes leaks illegal. If this can happen without any sanctions to its OGP status, then I suspect, the process loses a great deal of credibility. The participation of Russia raises similar questions. While it speaks volumes about the attractiveness of the OGP and Russia’s participation may help foster some domestic positive changes, to admit a country that is regularly accused of rigging elections and where journalists routinely go missing is likely to frustrate many who wish to use the OGP as a stick by which to hold their own governments to account. How worried will Mexico, Turkey or Canada be about reneging on its commitments if South Africa is allowed to pass draconian laws around access to information, or journalists are allowed to go missing in Russia?
To date, there are not heated arguments over the issue (at least publicly) and my sense is the topic is only just beginning to peculate for most civil society members, but given the immediate challenges South Africa and Russia pose to the OGP expect this issue to become much more heated, barring some clear resolution that satisfies the civil society participants.
Much less important, but still worth noting, is the simple fact that the logistics must be better next time. While the Brazilians were generous and warm hosts and, unlike in New York, civil society participants were thankfully not segregated from the government representatives, the failure to have internet access on the first day was unacceptable. It meant that anyone not on site could not follow along to the presentations and those at the conference could not engage those at home, or at the conference, online. For a conference about openness and engagement, it was an unfortunate reminder of even some of the more basic challenges still confronting us.