Thursday, 4 December 2014

OGP & Civil Society: A snapshot from South Africa

“we’re going to sing from the same hymn sheet. We will do it in every province and take over the parliament if necessary”. 
“you know it’s not like we haven’t done this before in South Africa. It’s not like we haven’t led a fight for change. Or transformed our country. We just have to rediscover that. We are capable.”
Two voices that stood out for me at a meeting of South African civil society, gathered together by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as part of their outreach to engage citizens with this initiative. Passion, frustration, anger but creativity were the hallmarks of an intense debate about how to make the OGP live up to its name, in a land that should be so much further down that path. I attended the meeting for Making All Voices Count, for whom I work.

The idea was to spend two days together; the first with Government representatives including a Deputy Minister, and the second to forge a civil society agenda to rally around in pursuit of genuine participatory governance, a new relationship where people could play a meaningful role in shaping the decisions that affect their communities.

South Africa is a fascinating country, and never more so when listening to a group of people who are fired by a desire to change the world. These include many who themselves fought the fight against apartheid but also includes those for whom that era is something they can only read or learn about. But those for whom the freedom struggle is something their parents did, that legacy still guides: the second quote above was from a young woman who was born around the same time as people queued for hours to vote for the first time.

And yet. And yet. There is a very high level of cynicism here, perhaps beyond that which is healthy, but it is borne of what they consistently say they feel are repeated examples of being ignored by a political class they regard as increasingly remote. Scandals like this one don’t do anything to help, either.

Whether that sense of remoteness is right or wrong, what is inspiring is that such a group of committed people – from trades unions, NGOs, faith groups and others - would come together and invest precious time and resources into making the most of what OGP could in theory contribute to a process of real change. What I heard were calls for action by citizens from across the nine provinces of this country to redress the criticism that has been made of the OGP in South Africa thus far: that it exists on paper but in reality little or nothing has changed; by taking clear ownership of local decision making structures. Turning up. Organising. Demanding to be heard and waving the OGP action plan at officials if they resisted. This was harking back to the proud traditions of previous decades but in a way that was relevant to today.

South Africa is now co-chair of OGP and will assume the chair in October 2015. That year is a big one in development terms anyway as the long heralded SDG framework is unveiled. We know already that governance will be part of that new way of doing development. Given South Africa’s key position at that time, and the doubts that have been raised not least following speeches such as that given by President Zuma, who questioned the role of the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism and emphasised “the character and nature of the OGP as a non-binding voluntary initiative.” - this will be a time for OGP to either prove its worth or be proven not to have it, at least in this country.

But from what I saw at this meeting, which met at the Nelson Mandela Foundation at the former leaders' own house in Johannesburg, this movement of citizens take that struggle as their inspiration, adapt it to today and together are a force to be reckoned with. If these people can’t make this work, nobody can.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Citizen voice in post-2015: stop asking the wrong questions and start organising

Danny Sriskandarajah poses the question in this Guardian piece:
"citizen voice in post-2015 goals: is anyone listening"? 
He goes further and asks: 
"how will sustainable development goals represent the views of all citizens?” 
The answers, at least in the confines of NewYork, are straightforward: ‘no’ and ‘they won’t’. I would argue these are the wrong questions anyway. The SDGs, like their MDG predecessors, will represent an intergovernmental political compromise and, one would hope, the best political deal the more progressive voices in those negotiations can secure within the Open Working Group. Civil society with allies in some governments have successfully established that business as usual is not an option and shaped some of the content but a political compromise it shall be. So while there is every reason, as Saferworld describe for governance and peace, to hope for a better deal; the real question in my mind for civil society rests with the ‘post-post-2015’ era: how will citizens hold individual governments to account for their commitments in the years to come?

Danny quotes the MyWorld survey and the High Level Panel consultations as examples of the many attempts at outreach and consultation that has marked this remarkable process. It’s been a while since Post-2015 was my daily bread and butter but I can think of others too – the UN thematic consultations for example. And while Danny is right to charecterise these initiatives as Northern led he misses out the work of the Beyond2015 civil society coalition. A strange omission as I can remember the membership figures indicating that it hovered between even North/South membership or tilted slightly towards Southern organisations. That was reflected in the voices we sought to seek out and reflect in our own submissions to the process; and was one of the strengths of the coalition. My question here, is how do we maintain that energy and movement in the post-post-2015 era? 

Why would that be important? Because in each of the consultations Danny quotes, citizens from North and South consistently and by very large margins voted for good governance and peaceful societies as among their highest priorities. Way ahead of the exclusively technocratic approach represented by the MDGs. This is because the vast majority of humanity simply wants to make progress ourselves and lay the best possible foundations for our children.

Danny rightly highlights the barriers to entry for civil society to the latest round of consultations, a very good example of which was the non-consultations held by the data-revolution, scathingly depicted in this piece by Neva Frecheville of Cafod. Set against high air fares and impossible visa demands among others, he rightly argues that it has been impossible for civil society to meaningfully engage at the same level. But that was never going to be the case. I would argue that civil society also never got to grips with what Claire Melamed described as the “Christmas Tree” phenomenon: where each CSO sought to present their own niche issue as *the* most important thing policy makers had to prioritise. This led to ridiculous scenes like this during the High Level Panel, prompting Graca Machel to leave the room. I also used to wonder how connected these discussions in capitals were with the poorest and most vulnerable and whether they needed a reality check; civil society frequently being comprised of elites just like governments. 

Yet there is a real opportunity if we raise our eyes to the post-post-2015 horizon. The energy I can remember personally during my time working within the Beyond2015 coalition, at this intense meeting in Liberia and elsewhere is still very much there. In fact it is vibrant, buzzing and healthily restless: I saw this at first hand while leading a packed out session at Civicus’ International Civil Society Week on the subject of ‘brokering new pathways between citizens and their governments’ here in South Africa just last week end. The real question for me, therefore, is how do we ensure the energy, those connections and that movement which, for all its flaws, the post 2015 process has generated these past few years, stays vibrant and starts to ask the awkward questions of individual governments in the post-post-2015 era about to dawn?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Turkana County: A Reality Check

“The County Government now has 9 billion Shillings to dedicate to local people, their needs and concerns. We are determined to make this work” – Member of the County Assembly, Turkana 
“If this new local government is so open to the people why did you refuse to show us the budget and even bar us from viewing the debates?” – Journalist, Turkana 
“This is a forgotten school. And a forgotten place. Maybe because our village doesn’t have a strongman, that’s why they don’t listen to us” – Headteacher, Loima County, Turkana
Three very differing viewpoints on the relationship people have with their governments in one county, in Northern Kenya. All of which were expressed as part of Making All Voices Count’s new approach to working in-country, set out here and for whom I work.

This was the first of our outreach sessions which the programme will use to understand what those problems look like from the bottom up, and it took place in Turkana County, Northern Kenya. This is an area described by one of the new County Assembly Members in our public meeting as “traditionally marginalised” by the national Government in Nairobi. Turkana has among the highest levels of illiteracy, is partly desertified, is among the poorest counties in Kenya and is consistently vulnerable to cross border and communal armed violence. At the heart of the response to all of those challenges is the willingness and ability of government to respond to what people are telling them they need.

Last week in Lodwar, we called a meeting to discuss what our programme could do to most meaningfully address that challenge. We did so in the context of a new constitutional arrangement in Kenya which devolves significant budget and public policy making powers to a new level of county government. What that means is that a new political structure, and therefore a new political class has been created. They were well represented in our meeting, along with Chiefs, civil society advocates and journalists. It was heartening they all endorsed our idea that devolution was the area on which Making All Voices Count should concentrate.

Windows of opportunity

Several leading politicians expressed a strong view – and willingness – to utilise the new way of doing government as a means by which local people were fully informed and active participants. County Assembly members expressed support for the use of community radio to broadcast their discussions, in order for citizens in hard to reach places and with lower levels of literacy to follow, while others described having established ward level meetings which they sought to publicise far and wide. That the assembled media and civil society representatives also agreed, despite holding a healthy scepticism for what might actually be delivered, was an encouraging sign. Yet from the other form of local political power, the Chiefs, came a stark warning of simply repeating the old politics of decisions detached from people at local level, with one stating he felt “we are creating another Nairobi”. There was clear scope and a sense of urgency to get this element of citizen participation locked in as these systems evolved, as doing so after processes became entrenched would present real challenges that may be difficult to overcome.

Overcoming expectations

Sitting under a thorny tree between two dilapidated school buildings in a remote village far from Lodwar, one headteacher spoke of his experience – and expectation – of being and remaining ‘forgotten’ by the political class. Another, who was leading a school that unique among others had achieved a higher enrolment rate of girls than boys, illustrated his own living quarters. While he’d built a dormitory to try to secure those girls from potential attack, he himself was living in a mud hut next to a highly polluted lake. And used hot ash on his doorstep to ward off the snakes at night. Both spoke of children too tired to learn for lack of food, and neither had access to safe drinking water. These are the unsung changemakers in Turkana County; quietly dedicating their lives to transforming others in remote and rural areas. Neither had had a visit from local political leaders, or education officials, in years and had little if any expectation of this changing. This is the level of disenfranchisement that has been ingrained in this part of Kenya, and winning the confidence of these citizens will require clear results, and quickly.

Civic space & data

In the absence of sustained government assistance these schools had been relying on determined community based organisations who advocated on their behalf, and collected data to present to policy makers as they shaped their budgets. This included lack of textbooks, tables, water and the numbers of disabled children, for example. What these advocates described as missing – and what was also voiced as a real need by members of the new Council Assembly – was a civic space in which that data and those views could be presented, debated and acted upon.

Here was a real topic on which there was broad agreement, with professional and citizen journalists telling us that they saw such a space as a means by which they could contribute to informing local people and holding decision makers to account. Fertile ground, perhaps, for Making All Voices Count to invest in the data collection and policy brokering capacity of change makers from within civil society, the media and government.

Making All Voices Count

Two things were clear from this engagement. If you ask people in Turkana for their views they need no second invitation. Teachers in remote areas, social activists campaigning for sanitation or changemakers in county government all share the very strong desire to achieve something new with the opportunity that devolution presents. The problem is that many of them have very low expectations of that being achieved. Asking people in this county to dedicate time to new initiatives involves very real costs on their part, so they need to be convinced of the likely pay off. Their guarded enthusiasm is an essential, yet easily lost, commodity.

The other factor was that there is a very real race against time to make this work. A political class has been created and one which is in theory closer to the people they are there to serve, and thus therefore better placed to do so. Yet experience from across the world teaches that those classes become rapidly entrenched. If local Kenyans are to make all voices count in this new dispensation it will be important to do so in the coming months as the system retains the flexibility that comes with change. We will be following up with this in mind, and talking to others across Kenya with that same sense of urgency.

These are precisely the sort of conversations, gritty and close to reality, that we want to use to shape what and how we work. The experience of Kenya so far suggests it was the right course for us to take. But the real judges of our success will be those quiet changemakers in remote corners of this county, and the children and families that rely on them.

Note: This article first appeared here.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Open knowledge & changing the world

At the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin July 15-17, Making All Voices Count, for whom I work, supported conversations centred on key themes highly relevant to our mission of making all voices count; creativity, power, politics, inclusion, voice and representation.

In addition, we supported the Open Development Fringe Event held July 18, to enable space for participants to discuss issues and ideas that arose during the week. During this, Making All Voices Count staff members spoke to participants about our programme and how we can most usefully contribute to the work of others, and leave a legacy of learning, research and practice. Here are my reflections on this discussion:

Making All Voices Count

Open knowledge and changing the world
On a hot Friday afternoon at the Wikimedia offices in Berlin last week around 25 open development thinkers reflected on the learning Making All Voices Count has encountered, and how we have re-shaped our approach as a result. More on the details of that soon, but the debate was another chapter in the ‘how does change happen and where do we fit in’ debate we’ve been having recently. We wanted to know what our programme could most usefully contribute to the work of others which will continue long after we are gone.

Strong consensus emerged on some interesting themes: 
  • citizen engagement only counts if it is more than a one-off transaction 
  • parliamentarians need to be part of the picture 
  • money should be invested in citizen movements, not necessarily on technology 
  • there is need to draw on emerging scholarship which challenges some of the routinely quoted academic views on how collective action works
Citizen engagement

It’s fair to say that there was considerable scepticism over how multilateral institutions conceive of citizen engagement, most notably in projects that seem to regard a one-off consultation as a success in these terms. While the World Bank and UN agencies were referred to it is also worth bearing in mind that this is also a consistent criticism of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of that initiative.

While a frequent observation was made that here was a room of primarily European and North American development aficionados it is also worth considering that voices from the South make the same point, as they did to me over coffee one morning or most eloquently in the superb CIDA study as part of the Listening Project earlier in 2012. Donor and initiative staff turnover are one constant irritant, but so is the short-termism that besets such governance reform programmes. Real citizen engagement means changing cultures and altering power dynamics – not something that happens in the space of a few short years.

Power to the democrats

A fairly consistent critique made by parliamentarians of citizen engagement programmes is that they seem cut out of the picture in favour of a direct line between citizens and their governments. People wanted to know how Making All Voices Count would include the voices of democrats, and voiced anger at the absence of these voices in several other initiatives. A point well made, and one we will reflect on.

Invest in change, not tech

Interestingly for a bunch of people who had just spent the last few days at the Open Knowledge Festival debating data, tech and transparency there was a clear message here about what Making All Voices Count should and should not be targeting resources at. Innovation was not technology per se, but the strategic use of either high or low tech means of giving people a meaningful role in shaping the decisions that would shape their worlds. That could mean radio as much as an app. Or even rap, judging by the contribution of one flamboyant performer at the OKFest.


Listen to challengers

If you listen to voices you may not always like what they say, particularly if they challenge your settled ideas. One contributor from the MENA region highlighted that an initiative like Making All Voices Count would need to look very different in the Arab region and questioned why the programme did not exist there, with others highlighting our lack of representation in non-Anglophone countries, particularly Francophone Africa.

It’s worth highlighting that academic consensus rarely exists for long and we agreed that the emerging scholars from the MENA region who point out the inability to analyse the dynamics of change in that region using received western metrics, which stem back to the work of Tilly and others in the 1970s, need to be listened to. But it is also the case that this programme is not about to take on more countries – and thus we talked about what Making All Voices Count has always seen as a primary objective: supplying others with learning to be applied elsewhere.

So what next?

Open Development
This was a hugely rich exchange. That it inspired the level of enthusiasm and ideas in a hot room on a Friday afternoon is evidence enough of what one participant described as “…an exciting opportunity”, for this programme to start to test ideas about what might work in real-life environments and capture the learning that follows in ways that others can use long after the programme has finished its work in 2017. That remains a central goal of Making All Voices Count and we hope to have many more debates like this across the countries in which we work, at gatherings of like-minded reformers like this one and in the global policy space too. Keep talking to us and watch this space.

Friday, 11 July 2014

How does change happen?

How does change happen, and what is the role of programmes like Making All Voices Count?
“In Dar, the lights went on for me about what this programme was actually all about, and it was really exciting”! 
So said Chantal Matthew of the Centre for Municipal Research & Advice, an experienced local government hand seeking to make change by connecting young citizens with local governments to co-create initiatives to ensure government is genuinely responsive to their views, perceptions and priorities. She was referring to our Learning & Inspiration event in Dar es Salaam in May.

Over a morning coffee in my new home of Johannesburg this week I was privileged enough to get into the detail of how change processes happen here in South Africa, and seek to apply that to how this programme, for whom I work, could or should support it. The recurring themes were the vital roles of: informal networks that connect change makers across the public, private and non-defined spheres; change makers and risk takers within government and the private sector; and individual projects or initiatives that might be funded by programmes like ours that seek to drive change on specific themes.

Networks & courageous conversations

“I only heard about your programme by chance” said Pramod Mohanlal, co-founder and MD of, a firm providing the means by which citizens rate and feedback on government services, before adding that he’d been pointed towards us by a senior government official during a conversation they’d been having about their mutual missions to change how government is done here. Those sorts of informal networks, stemming from past relationships, professional associations, political affiliations and traditional cultures are the real spaces where, another grantee added, “courageous conversations” take place. Thinking the unthinkable outside the confines of bureaucratic or political constraints. Programmes that do not seek to tap into and contribute to those conversations would never, in their view, really achieve more than their constituent and time bound projects. A warning to those of us interested in achieving long term, sustainable impact. 

Change makers and risk takers

Don’t think business people only care about the bottom line, argued Pramod. They are citizens too, and often collaborating with senior officials within government already, for good or ill. Both public and private sectors experience huge market inefficiencies and pointless transaction costs which in both cases can be alleviated by meaningful interaction with citizens; be they customers or voters. The point being made, here, was that there was a shared agenda for changing governance across public and private spheres: the challenge for Making All Voices Count was how to unlock that untapped potential. Suggestions included private brokering of relationships between social activists, business leaders and senior government officials, while another was the very public enlisting of business leaders as ambassadors for achieving genuine public voice in the futures of their countries. 

Collective action, individual projects and voice

“When I am meeting a senior decision maker with Government, am I representing my organisation or Making All Voices Count? The answer totally changes the conversation” said one of our grantees, in response to a question about the most effective and appropriate contribution this programme could make to the process of political and governance reform. The strong answer coming back was that our role was about funding for sure, but also about convening conversations. 

That was the ‘brand value’, they felt, of Making All Voices Count, part of a global movement for change. Under that umbrella, it was said, grantees were able to add up to a coherent whole rather than a collection of disparate, separate and unrelated projects. The point was that this programme could only ever make local sense, and contribute to transformative change, if what it did in-country reflected a coherent and consistent approach to supporting change makers responding to their specific circumstances. It was not for a programme like this to enter into local political debates, but it was helpful for our work to be framed and designed with a clear premium placed on supporting change makers to act in concert, utilising each others skills, experiences, networks and strengths. 

The A, B & C of governance reform 

So what’s the straightforward and linear approach we take to genuinely responsive governance in each of the countries in which we work? The short answer is that there isn’t one. As Pramod observed: “change is messy”. But what this exchange highlighted for me was the importance of a tailor made approach to local context, and the need to encourage others to have ‘courageous conversations’ that bring all of us out of our comfort zones. What that will also mean is a rigorous discipline to asking ourselves consistently hard questions about how the projects we fund really get to the heart of bringing about transformative change; and where they don’t what can we do to build on the role of networks and our own ‘brand’ to broker, support and incubate ideas with that level of potential. Oh, and to do all of that within the parameters of a locally context-responsive country plan. 

But what this conversation really underlined above all, was that looking for ‘experts’ from afar is often the exact opposite to what you should do. They are all around you, you only need to ask.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Fixing the feedback loop: a bridge too far?

“Trust the people who sold my future”? Amina had just been asked what it would take for her to start to engage with the State, in this case local government, in this part of Dar es Salaam. The 30 year old mother of three was responding to one of our group, visiting as part of a Making All Voices Count field trip intended to ground our Learning & Inspiration Week in hard reality. Amina replied that these were the same local authorities that included an education official who had sold her place at college to a politically better-connected student. When she turned up to enrol she found her future as a nurse had been traded away, and with it her chance to escape the cycle of poverty in the slum area in which she’d grown up.

Amina’s experience, which also included regularly having to pay increased “taxes” for services that either didn’t exist or never materialised after elections, is the norm in this community. Dar es Salaam is already experiencing the effects of climate change and this area, near the heavily polluted river, is flooded several times a year. Sad piles of ineffective home-made sand bags, together with slime markers on the walls, are silent testament to the lack of support they have received from any element of the State for that too. And symbolically standing over the river, which doubles as the local latrine, was the bridge connecting the two halves of the community. A flood from well over a year ago had broken the structure, and locals had erected a precarious plank based link to the remaining parts of it. Countless promises have been made to fix it, taxes even raised using it as a justification. But still the bridge remains broken.

Amina, who assists an alternative health practitioner used by people who cannot afford to use the local hospital, or to purchase drugs that are frequently only available on the black market, summed it up: the only part of the State that actually works is the tax system. They are very efficient at taking your money.

This is the uncompromising reality of people’s lives. Even if genuine reforms to the way the State interacts and thinks about its citizens started tomorrow it would take generations to turn around the perceptions and expectations of people for whom ‘government’ means predation. So what does that mean for governance reform initiatives like Making All Voices Count?

Perceptions, power and people

Institutions do not rest on technical ‘capacity’, they rest on how they are perceived. Yet donor initiatives frequently fail to recognise this and risk exacerbating the problem. The State exists through institutions. But when those institutions have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people the answer is not simply to press on with ‘capacity building’ initiatives regardless. Yet this has been precisely the approach of so many ‘state building’ approaches in the last decades. Making the Ministry of Finance more efficient at tax collection is not likely to re-engage Amina. And a view of the State from a Western perspective with strict divisions between the public and private spheres is also likely to fall short, because this is simply not the reality of people’s lives. This has been pointed out for decades, with Douglass North in 1990 re-casting the idea of State institutions as being both formal and informal means of setting:
“…the rules of the game in a society or more formally … the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction”. 
He meant that the State is more than the formal boundaries of institutions with their rules based systems, but the human norms and power assymetries that they encourage. If the rules of the game are stacked against you and the use of power by officials is predatory, then simply building capacity without fundamentally reforming those institutions is likely to make progress less, not more likely.

Sadly many ‘state building’ approaches only do the capacity building part, not the more politically awkward reform. The OECD recently produced work which underlines further the power of perceptions:
“Lack of legitimacy contributes to state fragility by undermining the processes of state-society bargaining that are central to building state capacity”. 
And it is that bargaining which needs to happen; donors ignore this complexity at their peril:
”All donor interventions affect local political processes, and thus state capacity and legitimacy”.
Humility: change takes time & short-termism is harmful

If we accept that the institutions through which the State and citizen conduct their bargaining are more than their tangible parts but include the intangible norms, behaviours and perceived levels of legitimacy, then we must also accept that changing these dynamics takes time. As Jonathan Fox asked during the TALearn week in Indonesia earlier this year: which theory of change had ever proven that you could overturn centuries of power dynamics by the application of a time-bound technocratic project?

The question was of course rhetorical, and reflective of a key conclusion reached by the World Development Report of 2011, produced by that bastion of technocratic short termist approaches the World Bank, which reached the stark conclusion that such change took around 30 years to evolve.

That is not an argument for 30 yearlong projects but it is a warning light to initiatives to avoid short termism in favour of longer term commitments and for short life-span initiatives to have the humility to think about where in that continuum of change they might sit, and design their contributions accordingly.

Innovation is critical, but so is context

Does all this mean global initiatives, with short life-spans and focused on the use of innovation are doomed to fail? No. I would argue that the literature on the role of Positive Deviance and suggestions of Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation point to a different way of conceiving the change we might be looking for and the way we design our approaches to supporting it.

Positive Deviance, the idea that local innovators find new ways of going outside norms to solve a problem, emerged as a theory in the in the early 1990s and has since led to more thinking about how to encourage it. There is a continuing debate about whether that change happens more because of strong local leaders driving it forward, or a more problem-driven approach that responds to change and flexibly adapts, but both schools of thought agree that local leadership is critical. Without it, this change simply does not happen. Which means that achieving a global vision can only ever work if it is pursued from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down.

Making All Voices Count

Adapting to what you learn makes perfect logical sense but it does not always survive the power of the dreaded logframe. What NGO is going to have an open conversation about how they may have failed in front of the people they rely on for future funding when they think those funders will respond to failure – any failure – negatively. Yet it only takes a cursory look at any donor record to realise that failing is a perfectly normal outcome, just as any look at human experience in facing up to problems includes trial and error.

This programme sets itself a high bar. We want to strive to avoid setbacks but learn from them when they happen, in the ways that others before us have argued; particularly the line of thinking on Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation. We have already fundamentally adapted how we will be working in the coming years, in response to that learning. On that, more soon. When we are long finished we want to have left a body of evidence and experience that can shape the activities of others in ways that enhances the chances of genuinely transformative change; and in so doing having supported human progress. A tall order, certainly. But it’s the least Amina has a right to expect.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Politics, big business & dark data: reflections from OGP Dublin

OGP Europe Regional Meeting

This article first appeared here 

The Open Government Partnership roadshow rolled into the breathtaking grounds of Dublin Castle last week for its European Regional Meeting, with many diehards having themselves trekked form the Asia leg in Bali just days before. 

On the agenda were multiple themes but what stood out for me were three areas which together will do much to determine the impact of OGP on real life governance for good or ill. Despite those challenges, however, the glass remains half full and it’s incumbent on all of us to act as well as argue.


The meeting took place amidst a scandal which had claimed the scalp of an Irish Justice Minister who, it was alleged, had presided over the leaking of sensitive police data which had exposed whistleblowers within the police service. The relevance of the scandal was not lost on any of the Irish participants, either in the form of Minister for Public Engagement and Reform Brendan Howlin, nor his civil society counterparts.

In the case of the civil society groups they wanted to highlight what they perceived as the Irish Government’s willingness to take international plaudits for openness while intentionally stifling it at home. Their target was the fees the Irish Government had introduced which, at EUR15 per Freedom of Information request was already reducing citizens’ opportunities to hold their leaders to account. Minister Howlin responded angrily to one questioner who invited the international panel to offer their words of corrective advice to his government, denying that there were any plans to raise charges still further and citing the economic crisis as the principal reason for the fees.

Taking those exchanges along with the argument advanced by UK Minister Francis Maude, that there was a constant struggle between reformers and spoilers within government; and the documented trend identifiedby the Independent Reporting Mechanism of some States effectively instrumentalising their OGP membership for PR purposes while acting to reduce scope for citizen engagement at home the political scale of the challenge looms large. Signing accords is one thing, but fundamentally changing political culture and the bureaucracy that depends on it is quite another.

Big business

The larger players of the private sector were well represented here. Google, Microsoft, IBM and others sent delegates who in many cases played a prominent role, including a session aimed at strengthening their role within OGP. Each underlined their firm commitment to the principles of openness and transparency, while being genuinely excited by the role that corporates could play in delivering data and the tools with which to empower citizens to use it.

Yet this session, together with exchanges between business folk and others elsewhere, was disappointing if only for the lack of coherence in approach. In a side session Dejan Cvetković, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft in Central and Eastern Europe, had made the case for private sector led open data; but had to concede that this would only be likely where the data itself could turn a commercial value, which likely ruled out information on care for the elderly or other socially important areas.

Chris Taggart of OpenCorporates was also quick to apply a needle to the corporate balloon by questioning why it was that the commercial rights of those tools and that data had to be retained by the firms themselves. Going further, he demonstrated how data his organisation had collected rather suggested that it might be an idea for business to shine a light on its own commitment to transparency, with a data visualisation of Goldman Sachs’ banking interests. It seems the Cayman Islands have particularly welcoming banks. And almost inevitably Google’s tax arrangements in Europe came under fire too. Real accountability meant real change, argued Taggart, and doing the bare minimum required by law just didn’t cut it.

Dark data 

Finally for me the challenge least responded to by OGP thus far is that of the sinister uses that some elements of the State can put information towards. Smari McCarthy, of the International Modern Media Institute was joined by Irina Balychevsky of the Open Knowledge Foundation to discuss what an Orwellian threat might look like if proper safeguards are not in place.

The Snowden revelations had completely undermined, said McCarthy, any sense of meaningful checks and balances on State security services in the advanced economies, while the continued practice of locking up journalists and human rights activists in OGP countries like Azerbaijan underlined the potential of the threat where the idea of accountable government remains a distant prospect.

Glass half full

There was much criticism of OGP at this conference. In addition to the political challenges facing reformers within Governments, doubts were expressed about the extent to which the structures of the initiative were conducive to genuine accountability among peers.

And yet, and yet.

I was left with the very strong impression that it was down to those same voices pointing out the problems to do something about it. People reasonably asked why the raw data behind the Independent Reporting Mechanism had not been used to its full extent by civil society to ask awkward questions. Looking at this excellent breakdown by Alan Hudson of Global Integrity it strikes me that in many ways the data is more powerful than the narrative reports themselves.

And for those of us in other initiatives associated with open government, such as Making All Voices Count, there are opportunities too. The OGP recently announced their Open Government Awards, aimed at highlighting a practice that “…expands and sustains Citizen Engagement to improve government policies and services”.

Yet only Governments are permitted to nominate – the door is closed for civil society to do so. So we’re thinking about doing something similar but from the bottom up; watch this space – and let us know your own ideas too.