Is there an open government ‘movement’ and if so where is it moving and how will it know if it gets there?
I heard repeated references to such a movement during last week’s OGP global summit in Mexico City but left with mixed feelings about just how inclusive such a movement if it exists really is, the extent to which civil society voices could be heard amid the din of power politics which still dominates much of the Open Government Partnership’s proceedings; and whether a movement about governance could ever really measure its progress if it is not using metrics that go beyond only data, and into less tangible but nevertheless critical factors such as perceptions, trust and legitimacy - surely all of whom are equally fundamental bedrocks to building responsive and accountable governance.
But there was also a real silver lining. And that was the genuine willingness to openly debate these challenges, harness the expertise of the elites that attend summits like that but also those of the most marginalised who live in hard and sometimes violent places, such as newest OGP member Sri Lanka. The summit was a solid serving of realism with a garnish of hope.
The two-day summit was preceded by a one day affair solely for civil society. Taking place in the appropriately stunning surroundings of an art institution in the heart of old Mexico City the stone walls echoed with enthusiastic speakers hailing the progress made by OGP since its inception. Yet these were the converted. For sure, there were now a slew of National Action Plans which set out pathways to open data on everything from corruption through to public service delivery and domestic resource mobilisation, including in many cases examples of real engagement between reformist government champions and innovators from within business and civil society who collectively had used OGP to make real strides towards participatory governance and more efficient government. Before I add a ‘but’ to that sentence – that is a very great achievement for OGP and one for which its founders, funders and champions should be proud.
It was noticeable to me that the examples given were principally projects that centred on relatively non controversial topics and took place in relatively stable countries. The repeated references to the open government ‘movement’ for me, therefore, was strange. I don’t know of any other movement that only operates in relatively easy places to work and does so on relatively uncontroversial topics in the main. If the open government community – let’s call it that instead – is to really take on the mantle of a movement then surely it will need to take its reforming zeal to where the challenges are greatest.
One such place would be the new entrant to the platform which was unveiled at the Summit – Sri Lanka. This country’s entrance to the community offers us the chance to get to grips with some of the challenges faced by post conflict countries. It will be a hard and complex environment to navigate but one which will force the open government community to confront some of the issues around power and conflict I and others have been talking about for a long time. I used to work in Sri Lanka. It is a country which has emerged from decades of civil war, the ending of which cost several thousand civilian lives in a manner which remains highly contested. It is a state in which ethno-nationalist politics took hold in the post-independence era, and which resulted in a society so stratified along ethnic and religious lines that an armed insurrection and civil war ensued; the island toppling into the abyss in 1983. The Rajapaksa administration that emerged militarily victorious, after a civil war that was re-ignited in large part by the international response to the 2004 tsunami, was removed democratically in the last general election. It is a country that now remains deeply divided and, despite the new Sirisena administration being reformist in character and joining OGP as a result, is a nation in which the forces of division and sectarian nationalism are vibrant and growing. In short, this is a fragile State in which a progressive administration is by no means a guarantee that we have left the darkness of recent decades behind. There is a moral responsibility for the open government community to reach out to the peacebuilding community and together in turn forge partnerships with civil society, business and government champions to make the best possible contribution we can to that beautiful island’s journey out of endemic marginalisation, violent conflict and oppression. The good news is that this combination is possible. It won’t be easy, but some of us are already working on it.
Counting what counts
So how will we measure success? Do we judge it by quantifiable amounts of data published or do we use metrics that include how people think and feel as well? I wonder if OGP is starting to fall victim to what former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios once warned of as the "rise of the counter bureaucracy" - counting what you can, not what actually counts.
I had an interesting exchange with the indomitable Nnena Nwakanma of the Web Foundation on this subject at the Summit. Nnena who has in recent years resembled a super-energy charged visionary on the data revolution, made a comment that in order to measure success you had to be able to count what it was you were talking about. I couldn’t resist asking how you could measure such intangible things as trust or legitimacy. In fairness Nnena conceded that things were more nuanced than solely which pieces of data you can count (and in fact highlighted that by her own story of not being named in her early years because girls were not considered as valued as boys), but to me this was a microcosm of the fork in the road the open government community is faced with. If we are collectively serious about the SDG agenda which was another dominant theme of the summit, then we must be serious about the pledge to ‘leave nobody behind’. We simply can't hope to do that by only working in relatively stable countries and only measuring progress according to metrics that do not correspond to issues of power, marginalisation or perceived legitimacy and trust.
SDG16, much talked about at the Summit, is about governance. But it is also about justice and peace. And that will mean those who work in the worlds of building bridges of trust and legitimacy among communities affected by violence, marginalisation and fragility – will need a welcoming hand of partnership with those who work in the worlds of building technology, data and opengov projects. A starting place for that, it seems to me, is in Sri Lanka and in other states not yet members of OGP but facing similar challenges.
Less moaning, more fixing
One comment made to me in the Summit struck home, and it was a push back against my own scepticism. Several speeches by Heads of State or their representatives at the Summit had been clearly aimed at limiting the voices of civil society and shifting OGP towards being an inter governmental affair. To me this was all that was bad about OGP - but as I expressed this to one wise counsel it was gently pointed out to me that in order to fix problems and get things done we had to engage with what was there rather than what we would want to be there. Middle class people had other options, including walking away, they said. But the people who really need to see things fixed do not have any such luxury. So stop with the moaning and get with the fixing.
A point well made. Let's give it a go.