The OGP, Civil Society and Power: Why #CSOday missed its mark

Yesterday in the University of London student union building, civil society organizations (CSOs) from around the world that are participating in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) gathered to prepare for today and tomorrow’s OGP summit.

There was much that was good about Civil Society Day (#CSOday). Old acquaintances reconnect and some new connections were forged. There were many useful exchanges of best practices and shared challenges and even some fun moments – such as singing led by transparency activists from the sub-continent who regularly put their lives on the line.

However with an evenings reflection I feel increasingly that the day represents a missed opportunity.

Not discussed – at least in the sessions I attended – was the more basic question of: Is this working for us? And if no, what should we do about it. Perhaps still more important was using the time to ask: How can the civil society participants use one another and the OGP to build power to advance their goals?

What – in retrospect – might have been the session most likely to trigger this conversation, the “What can civil society do to push ambition on Open Government?” did spark a brief discussion about if and how civil society organizations may exit the OGP if the process is not serving their needs. It also generated a brief acknowledgement that the OGP processes could be revisited. But ultimately the conversation felt unambitious. Something that, as an audience member, was as much my fault as anyones.

Indeed the entire day, the sessions felt like mere prologues/duplications of the sessions that are occurring during the OGP. Coalitions were not formed. Misunderstandings not broken down. Progress was made, but at was best iterative, not transformative.

Again, the CSO’s in my mind, need to start thinking about how the OGP can help them build power. I think, until now, we’ve believed that the secretariat and the processes would do that for us. It does – but likely not enough to generate the type of action many are looking for. Worse, the OGP is probably unlikely to have a single failure moment – rather the CSOs might slowly start drifting away quietly, if they feel it does not serve them. This makes figuring out more about how the OGP can serve CSO’s – particularly more local ones – all the more important.

I am perhaps, alone in thinking this. But if not, I offer one proposal about how we could build power.

A Brief Diagnosis

A core part of the problem is that while the heads of states can regularly generate media by simply meeting within the context of the OGP, it is much harder for civil society. I – and some I talk to – feel like this void should be filled by the steering committee – and particularly its CSO members. However, they appear constrained in what they can say and do. This manifests itself in three ways:

  • First, it appears the steering committee is unable to speak out against – and attract attention to – countries that are clearly moving backwards on their commitments.
  • Second, there appears to be limited capacity to challenge new entrants who cause many CSOs to feel uncomfortable. This includes Russia (who ultimately opted not to join) and Argentina, which many Latin American CSOs feel has been particularly egregious in systemically limiting freedom of expression. Membership has privileges, it endows on countries some social license and impacts the OGP brand in other countries – barriers to entry matter.
  • Third, the steering committee seems to have done little to attract international and/or national attention to Independent Reporting Mechanism reports – a third party report that assessed governments’ progress against their goals. Fears that the IRPs would be watered down seem to have been misplaced. According to many the IRPs are fair, balanced and in many cases quite critical. This is fantastic. The feat now is that poor IRP reports are not creating neither attention nor pressure for change.

It may not be the role of the steering committee to draw attention to these issues. I feel it is. Either way, it needs to be someone’s role. I want to be clear, I don’t believe the CSOs steering committee members have been negligent – I know they are diligent and effective CSO partners. Rather I believe there are some norms, and even hard structural barriers that prevent them from speaking out or pushing the steering committee as a whole to speak out on these issues.

Thus I suggest that the CSOs do the following.

A Suggestion

First – create a committee of highly respected CSO members that most members believe can, in specific circumstances, speak on behalf of the global CSO community. Normally I’d advocate that the members of each regional committee caucus until they decide on who that person can be. However, perhaps in the interim, we should just pick some that are appear to be widely respected. I’ve not consulted with any of these people – so mentioning them is just as likely to embarrass them – but I might nominate: Alison Tilley (South Africa), John Wonderlich (United States),  Emmanuel C. Lallana (Philippines), Felipe Heusser (Chile), Helen Darbishire (Europe). There is a imperfect list and is limited by people I’ve met and heard others speak about in positive terms. The key thing is to not get bogged down – at this time – with the selection process (at this time).

Second – a common mailing list where if, at any point, a national group of CSOs feel like their country is backsliding on its commitments or failing to live up to the OGP in a significant way, they could raise their concern with this committee.

Third – if, after some deliberation both within the committee and across the CSO community in general it was felt that there was a serious problem, this committee could issues statements on behalf of the CSO community. I could be wrong, but it would be nice to think that a collective outcry from the world’s leading CSO’s in transparency, governance and government reform might focus some (hopefully embarrassing) international media on the situation and put this issue on the agenda in various diplomatic circles. This committee might also bang the drum more aggressively in the international media about poor IRM reports.

I’ll be absolutely transparent about the goals here. Directly, the idea is to make the OGP process empower more CSO’s – hopefully the local one in particular. Indirectly however, the underlying hope to put pressure on the OGP governance and culture to remove any barriers that currently prevent CSO steering committee members from speak out as a group about various issues. If we succeeded in this, we could abandon this idea and concentrate on new ways to create power. And, if this had not come to pass, we could then formalize the committee and make it more permanent.

I don’t claim this model is perfect, and would invite feedback and or suggestions for alternatives. But I would love for the CSOs to starting thinking about how they can leverage the community the OGP has created to foster power to enable them to challenge governments more effectively.

Moreover, I think many governments would like it. Indeed, after floating this idea past one government official, they commented “We would like the CSOs to push as more. We want to do more and need to have a political environment in which that pressure exists. It helps us.” Perhaps not true of every government – but we have allies.

7 thoughts on “The OGP, Civil Society and Power: Why #CSOday missed its mark

  1. James McKinney (@mckinneyjames)

    I wonder if many CSOs are thinking of the Open Government Partnership as an opportunity to work in *partnership* with government, and to keep advocacy to existing channels? Perhaps the strategy is for the OGP to be a place where governments and CSOs can sit in a working group and try to work together, and save the fist fights for home?

  2. Lucas Cioffi

    This seems like a strong step forward. If such a committee is formed, I’d recommend adding 1) a way for CSOs to provide comments to improve the committee’s statements prior to the committee issuing strong public statements on behalf of CSOs and 2) a way for CSOs to sign on in support of the committee’s public statements with an optional “signing statement” where they can express their reason for support.

    If public participation by CSOs is strong, then the committee is empowered and will speak with authority. If public participation from CSOs is weak (and we really have no excuse for this) then it would be clear that we have more work to do in organizing ourselves.

    1. Paul Maassen

      I am not sure if we need a standing committee of leaders for two reasons – quickly jotted down: who would pick and select them and give them the authority to speak on behalf of all of us, second, having a formal structure would undermine the role of that other group of highly respected civil society leaders that is on the inside of the OGP.

      I am pretty keen to see how the petition plays out that Webfoundation and Access Info Europe put forward around surveillance. Let’s see how that model works, with someone taking the initiative, people and organizations signing up and then putting their ask on the table. Might be a good way to give added power to the SC members on the inside.

  3. Nathaniel Heller (@Integrilicious)

    Thoughtful piece, David. Thank you. Generally I agree that the CSO SC members have been constrained for the obvious reasons you mention — it’s awkward to call out those with whom you are working in partnership.

    That said, I feel we’re letting domestic CSOs off the hook a bit but repeatedly placing much of the responsibility at the feet of the SC/the process/the OGP structure. IRM have repeatedly and explicitly suggested that CSOs use their reports for targeted advocacy. It’s why those reports are written in such a way that each chapter/entry on a commitment can be pulled out as standalone pieces and used as leverage without having to read the rest of the report, literally. Warren Krafchik, the outgoing CSO co-chair, has argued publicly as much in saying that domestic and regional CSOs need to “make some noise” in order to provide the SC with the ammunition and leverage to take more public stances on potential backsliding and egregious behavior.

    It’s not rocket science how OGP, the IRM reports, and the process generally can be used effectively by domestic and regional CSOs to press ahead with advocacy. The more interesting question is why they aren’t. Is it solely that we’re not packaging OGP well enough and delivering it on a silver platter (“OGP advocacy in-a-box”)? Or is it that CSOs don’t feel like they have the backing of the CSO members of the steering committee? The reality is somewhere in between, I suspect. So while some blame is deserved for the SC, I’d shy away from victimizing CSOs not serving on the SC. This is a two-way failure.

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