Open Government Partnership – What Difference Does It Make?

Low tech approaches to open government

Low tech approaches to open government

As I queued outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on a grey, wet Thursday morning last week, I wondered if the delegates attending the annual summit of the Open Government Partnership might feel a little washed out before the event had even started. Fortunately, however, the atmosphere inside was vibrant and the debate lively, even if the London weather was anything but. Whatever flavour of transparency you favour, chances are there was something to keep you entertained and engaged during the conference. For two days, some 1,500 delegates streamed through the doors to see prime ministers, politicians, civil society leaders and some of the world’s greatest technologists discuss different aspects of transparency and accountability.

But once the conference has packed up and the baton has been passed to the next OGP chair (in this case, Indonesia), what remains? Is the OGP worth the trouble and expense or is it just a gimmick designed to keep people from truly holding their governments to account? While it may be a simple question to ask, it’s by no means easy to answer. It has been criticised on a number of fronts, including its increasing focus on digital – as opposed to political – openness, lack of civil society involvement and the lack of a robust enforcement and monitoring mechanism. This article addresses many of those criticisms and is certainly well worth a read.

Yet, the OGP also presents a number of great opportunities. It has put open government and transparency at the heart of many political debates for the first time. Tax justice, beneficial ownership, proactive disclosure of data and freedom of information have all moved from minority concerns to major policy concerns. Of course, progress and implementation are patchy and whether commitments lead to actual change is a matter for debate. So what did the summit teach us and should we believe the pessimists or the optimists?

Aid Transparency

There’s no doubting the fact that there is more data available than ever before on aid spending across the globe. The International Aid Transparency Initiative has enabled dozens of bilaterals, multilaterals and NGOs to publish data in a comparable format for the first time. Until recently, there was very much a focus on getting organisations to publish whatever data they had in whatever format – it was quanity, not quality that mattered. Now, though, there is a real shift afoot to focus not just on ‘data’, but on ‘information’. Questions around accessibility, comprehensiveness, timeliness and value are replacing questions about how much ‘stuff’ are you publishing. Publish What You Fund’s latest Aid Transparency Index gives an indication of both the quality and quanitity of data being published by donors. It reveals that many organisations still have a long way to go, with more than one third of those included in the index falling into the ‘very poor’ category. Only four organisations (out of a total of 67 in the index) scored ‘very good’, showing that aid transparency is by no means a battle won.

Legislative Transparency

One of the most exciting things I saw during the OGP summit was a series of visualisations showing assets owned by top judges, government ministers and parliamentary representatives.  The following visualisation, for example, shows assets held and salaries received by the Mexican Health Minister (chosen at random) in 2011:

OGP 2013 directorio legislativoKnowing who your parliamentary representatives are matters and knowing their economic and business interests is important. The tool above is a great way of being able to explore the data and one of the niftiest parliamentary visualisations I’ve seen in a while. While you may be forgiven for thinking politicians would resist initiatives like this and panic about such scrutiny, greater parliamentary transparency provides politicians with an opportunity to show their voters exactly what it is they do and how hard they work. Often, media portrays politicians as lazy and corrupt, yet greater transparency is a way for them to combat that portrayal and honest, hard-working politicians don’t have anything to fear. Many countries, however, are a long way from achieving true legislative transparency. Until recently, it was difficult for non-specialists in the UK to access up-to-date legislation without significant cost and in many other parts of the world that is still the case. As one speaker remarked, ‘if you need a lawyer just to access legislation, you’ve got it wrong’.

Freedom Of Information

FOI’s origins go back to the 18th century, so it might seem odd to include it in a conversation around open government, data and tech. The reality, however, is that FOI has been a key driver of change for many countries. In many parts of the world, meanwhile, FOI is a convenient way for governments to pay lip service to calls for greater transparency and openness, without requiring any action. Any legislation will only ever be as good as the regulations that ensure its implementation. And the evidence is that many countries are slow to fulfil FOI requests, they include lots of exceptions and may not even respond. In an age when many of us expect instant answers and information at our fingertips, is FOI (with its 28-day turnaround times and technical niceties) still the best way of doing business? Well, I wonder. Moving to digital by default could present a whole new series of opportunities, but many parts of the world are decades away from achieving that. No matter how imperfect, FOI still has an important role to play in getting governments to commit to releasing more information.

It’s clear that the OGP has a long way to go and it’s far from achieving its ultimate objectives. While some great advances have been made, progress is patchy and results debatable. It may be too soon to say one way or the other if the OGP has been a success. Commitments are one thing; implementation is quite another…