Saturday 22 February 2014

Open Government: top-down needs bottom-up

This is a blog post I published recently on the Making All Voices Count site on the progress reports published this month by theIndependent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership.

Top-down needs bottom-up

Thirty five progress reports were published this month by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) looking into the extent to which countries had delivered on promises made when they joined the initiative, aimed at transforming the relationship between governments and the governed.

The OGP was founded on the principle that good governance requires more than government alone, and its Steering Committee includes members of civil society for that reason. Yet these reports make clear that the extent to which non-governmental actors are meaningfully involved is patchy. They make interesting reading, not least as I am about to join an initiative with similar goals called Making All Voices Count, which invests in bottom-up solutions that utilise innovation and technology to contribute to transparency, accountability and good governance.

The challenges the reports reveal underline that bottom-up is as much part of the picture as top-down.

Four of the progress reports are on countries which are members of the Making All Voices Count initiative (Tanzania, South Africa, Indonesia and The Philippines) and the challenges they reveal seem to revolve around structural weaknesses of the initiative in-country, questionable commitment to implementation and the need to utilise the possibilities of technology to harness the collective power of reformers from within and outside governments in each country. I focus on what each tells us about OGP and the wider push for open governance below.

Structures: OGP, elections, engagement & repression

The reports take several of these countries to task over the relative weakness of the place afforded to the initiative within the government machine. Urging the Philippines to “strengthen the OGP institutionally” the report calls for the formation of cross-departmental working groups and involvement across disciplines to address a lack of co-ordination either in the implementation or monitoring of progress.

Indonesia’s report also surfaces the sensitive issue of elections within the context of the OGP’s governmental home. It notes the OGP remains tied to a Presidential unit rather than a permanent department, rendering it “…dependent on the outcome of the next election.” This has also been found to be a structural weakness of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, which seeks to pursue similar goals in the most challenging of circumstances, and may reflect the lack of incentives such initiatives offer elites to consider their own political mortality.
Insufficient engagement with civil society is cited in every case except for Indonesia, which scores highly here, with South Africa, The Philippines and Tanzania coming in for trenchant criticism.
South Africa’s use of deadlines expiring within days is compounded by Tanzania’s decision not to publish documents in Kiswahili “…limiting public participation,” made worse by a “weak” consultation process in the drafting stage. Even more worryingly, the report goes on to note the continued existence of repressive legislation which limits press freedom and others which “…counteract and contradict open government principles.”

Above image taken from the OGP website, reflecting all participating countries of the partnership

Commitment: a two way street

It’s also worth noting, however, that civil society in these countries does not escape criticism either. In particular The Filipino Government is taken to task for a lack of documented engagement in the consultation stage, which “…[b]oth the Government and civil society agreed … had been rushed”, while “consultation during implementation did not occur, but both Government and civil society shared responsibility for this … civil society did not cooperate to articulate common goals for OGP or expectations of the Government.”

It is hard to see how Governments can be expected to deliver on this agenda without support from civil society and to their credit the report notes that several organisations acknowledge this failure. But it might also be worth questioning the concept of ‘civil society’ in the first place, which is often taken as short-hand for NGOs, when the reality at local level is far more diverse. How many non-traditional players knew about the opportunity to engage if they were not on NGO mailing lists?

Surely, the only way we can genuinely be sure a fundamental transformation has taken place is when direct citizen engagement is both encouraged, accessible and acted upon; a challenge for global initiatives, but one which is applicable to all countries, North and South.

Tech: closing the feedback loop

Low levels of awareness about the initiative were found in precisely the social and professional groups that most need to be a part of it. In South Africa “…a number of relevant stakeholders are unaware of the OGP” and, worryingly, “[t]he level of awareness is also unsatisfactory among government agencies that do work related to the initiative.” The report calls for a major awareness-raising drive in that country as well as The Philippines and Tanzania and the role of tech in both raising profile, but also facilitating meaningful engagement is centre stage.

In The Philippines the report calls for the use of mobile technology and broadband to “[e]nsure analysis, usefulness and usability of data through open formats…” while in Tanzania the report notes that despite its involvement in the OGP and African Peer Review Mechanism the country still “…struggle[s] with a lack of accountability and loss of public trust.”

To counteract this, the report calls for the government to commit to publish a ‘dashboard’ of progress on OGP implementation online “…and ensure that all … reports are posted on the dashboard in a timely manner.” Lastly the report urges the government to “…take advantage of other communication channels, such as mobile phone/SMS technology, when supplying information to the public.”

That is fine as far as it goes, but supplying information is only part of the equation; interaction is the other essential element, so the manner in which the information is collected, presented and utilised by citizens seems to need attention too. Technology has a potentially transformative role to play, but innovation will need to be matched by sustained political commitment.


Amid these manifest challenges, some structural and others political, comes a positive and interesting observation. While South Africa is gently chided for having chosen progress indicators that it had either already achieved or was well on the way towards, potentially instrumentalising the OGP for external validation, both Indonesia and Tanzania are critiqued for being too ambitious. Tanzania’s 25 commitments were “overly ambitious” and should be slimmed down to fewer more strategic ones while Indonesia is encouraged to build on what the report concludes are major advances with “…a more ambitious concept of fostering open government beyond current initiatives”.

Top Down needs Bottom Up

It’s fair to say these are challenging reports for any government to have to deal with in public. And they should all be commended both for their membership of OGP and clear willingness to make progress toward genuinely open and responsive governance.

It’s no easy thing to be critiqued in these ways and the culture shift this demands is often overlooked by campaigners and activists, healthily impatient for more.

In the challenges we find the real value, perhaps, of the OGP’s top-down approach. Exposing structural weaknesses and bureaucratic inertia is a necessary first step to change. But what, arguably, many of these conclusions also do is highlight the need for bottom-up and context specific solutions too. Just as much political science analysis has highlighted how government institutions create their own elites, incentives and dynamics the same is true of civil society structures too; and the critiques made of Filipino civil society organisations would appear to bear this out.

How to reach beyond the usual suspects – within and without government – and to meaningfully engage them in the political priority-making of their own societies remains the holy grail of good governance.

Part of that picture will mean investing in local innovations and where appropriate scaling them up, along with a constant questioning of impact through research. The shared vision of reformers is a world in which all voices genuinely do count, and the more we can harness the complementarity of Making All Voices Count with OGP the better.

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