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.
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.