The other week Martin Tisne, the UK Policy Director at the Omidyar Network, as well as one of the key architects of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), posted a blog post expressing concern that Civil Society participants have misunderstood the OGP. Specifically Tisne is concerned that by focusing on entrance into the OGP rather than on the process which requires them to fulfill commitments towards greater transparency, NGOs are making a tactical mistake.
There is a tremendous amount of good insight in Tisne’s piece and it deserves to be widely read (and has been). There are however, important reasons civil society members spend as much time fretting about entrance into the OGP rather than purely on the process. And contrary to Tisne, I don’t think this is a tactical mistake – it is, in fact, both a tactically and strategically sound choice. Most importantly of all it is a reflection of how power is structured and distributed within the OGP.
For most activists fostering change is about a developing a set of carrots and sticks that can be used to cajole a reluctant actor into making the change you seek. One big carrot is participation in the OGP. This is good. It urges governments to make commitments and sign on to a process. However, it also has a serious impact on civil society’s power in the process. This is because it puts one major carrot – participation – at the beginning of the process while placing the stick – an assessment of how well a government is adhering to its commitments – at the end.
We shouldn’t underestimate the benefit participation confers on many governments. The OGP brand can become a sort of shield that protects a government against all sorts of accusations of opacity. “Of course we are transparent, we participate in the OGP” is an easy line for minister to counter to an uncomfortable question. And that is not the only way participation can diminish civil society’s power. Because a government’s necessarily requires civil society cooperation (they sign off on the commitments), it binds the two together. This means that, in some basic way, civil society has endorsed a – yet to be implemented – government plan. That can provide enormous political cover. In addition, OGP members may cause some citizens (e.g. potential transparency supporters and activists) to adopt a “wait and see” approach to judging their government, or to assume that a reliable process is in place and so they can focus on other issues. Rather than maintain or intensify pressure on a government, the OGP, in the short term, may diminish the power of civil society.
The aforementioned stick in the OGP process is the independent reporting mechanism. And it arrives at the end of the process, a couple of years after the country has joined the OGP. The hope is it provides an objective assessment that civil society members can use to shame and drive for change where the assessment is critical. The challenge, and the reason I suspect many civil society members remain nervous, is that this mechanism remains mostly untested. The OGP carrot and stick model becomes even more challenging if either a) the timeline for fulfilling commitments falls onto the term of the next government or b) a transparency issue arises that runs counter to the OGPs values but falls outside the government’s action plan. This is what happened in South Africa and so calling for ejection from the OGP became rational (and even necessary) since both the short term carrot (OGP participation) and long term stick – are review of the implementation plan – provided civil society with no leverage or power against a law that distinctly ran counter to the OGPs principles.
Consequently, the threat of striping a government of its OGP membership is not only a rational choice for many civil society members, in some cases it may be one of the few sticks available to them during a period in the process when other forms of influence have been made less effective. Threats of ejection is this not only a rational choice, but possible the only choice.
Indeed, OGP architects should take heart of the fact that civil society members are relatively hawkish about who gets to enter the OGP. As previously mentioned, OGP membership itself denotes a degree credibility – particularly to an unaware public. Civil society members bound to the OGP are potentially more invested in protecting the credibility and brand of the OGP than either the member governments of the OGP secretariat is. This is because, try as the OGP might to not compare countries to one another, civil society members know the company you keep matters.
This is not to say that the OGP should only be a high achievers club. I think the public understands there are differences in capacity, and the entrance of a country like Libya that is making a difficult transition, is broadly seen as positive. However, the participation of an authoritarian government, or even a democracy infamous for jailing journalists, significant corruption and little transparency – damages the the OGP brand for all participants, and particularly for civil society members participating in the process. I can only imagine the Executive Director of a civil society group grimacing as someone asks incredulously: “you are part of a transparency group that includes (insert country with poor record of your choice)?” Civil society actors that are the most invested in protecting the OGP’s brand, if only to ensure that the IRM has credibility when it is finally launched in their country. As such, protesting the potential entry of a country is not a tactical mistake, but a highly strategic decision.
I say this not because Martin is wrong, especially about his four points – civil society participation, OGP stretch goals, relevance check and the IRM – these are indeed critical to the bedrock of the OGP. And I remain exceedingly hopeful about the OGP, although a great deal hinges on the IRM and the degree with which it empowers local civil society actors. Rather I think it bears reminding all involved that we need to continuously have explicit and productive conversations about power, and how it is structured and where it flows, when it comes to the OGP process, as this reveals a lot about why actors act the way they do, and could provide insights in how we can make the OGP more effective.