Opening Government and Closing Civic Space

Last week saw the Open Government Partnership’s annual summit, which this year took place in Paris. Put briefly, the idea behind the initiative is to make governments ‘more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens’. It’s a voluntary club that now boasts some 75 countries across the globe and 2016 has seen it face some of its biggest challenges yet.

Indeed, one of the big questions at this summit concerns whether or not the partnership is still fit for purpose. Given recent trends and events, is it still possible to meaningfully speak of open government and it must be questioned how seriously all of those 75 members take their OGP commitments. A brief glance at the member country map on the OGP homepage tells you that OGP members encompass a very wide range of countries, some of which face accusations of serious human rights abuses, interference with the judiciary, freedom of speech repressions and a whole gamut of other actions and laws very much in opposition to the tenets of OGP membership. It’s worth asking whether the membership criteria ought to be tougher and the sanctions against countries violating their OGP commitments harsher. Certainly, it was a tough year in which to host this particular summit.

With thousands of delegates, dozens of parallel sessions and workshops and innumerable side events, it would be impossible to give a full picture of what went on at this year’s summit, so it’s probably worth focusing on just a couple of interesting points. The closing of civic space is a major issue facing many of the OGP member states. Whether the reported rise in hate speech and hate crimes following Brexit and Trump or more systematic attempts by governments to narrow civil society space through police intimidation or punitive legislation, civil society globally is operating under a good deal of constraint. Civicus were present to launch the Civicus Monitor, a tool that ranks and tracks countries across the world on the openness of their civic space. In recent times, civic space has faced a range of challenges and possible barriers, including:

  • Efforts to combat terrorism
  • Perceived success of a centralised development agenda
  • Populist, sometimes xenophobic politics
  • Backlash against a human rights agenda
  • Rise of new donors with less regard for civil society and civic space
  • Growth of transnational corporations

Trying to provide a comparable, easy-to-understand rating of the openness of civic space is not without its problems – methodological issues, real-time updating and verification of reports all pose real problems. Nor are the ratings without controversy – is Mexico really as repressed as China and how comparable are the civil society challenges in Canada and Ghana? Regardless of the challenges and potential objections, though, the effort to standardise and compare civic space across the globe is helpful and provides a very visible and much needed reminder of the importance of protecting civic space at this time.

Moving from civil society to government, a session on aid transparency provided some very useful food for thought. Speaking more as a publisher than a consumer of development data, it’s easy to pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on doing something that many other donors (particularly in the philanthropic world) do not do. For most trusts and foundations, publishing openly accessible, machine-readable data about their activities is simply not on their agenda, so a small degree of self congratulation is justified. But looking at the issue from a different angle – that of a user of development data – prompted a number of questions. Firstly, how do publishers know their data is useful and meaningful to their intended audience? Of course, it’s next to impossible to cover all bases and think about all potential use cases, but as a community the only way that data publishers can improve their data is to understand how people want to use it. Time, money and technology all limit what publishers can produce and how often they can produce it, but that’s not to say that there aren’t steps that can be taken to improve data. Secondly, what efforts do we make to publicise our data? It’s likely that there are many potential users of that data that simply don’t know it exists. Even within the OGP event, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) was unfamiliar for many – and that’s within a group of people already interested and active in open government! How we promote this information as a resource is a big question for the development community. Finally, how do we demonstrate its value and make the case for continued investment and improvements in aid data? For many donor countries, aid and development are not easy sells to citizens or parliaments. There are myriad other uses for that budget line and it’s not difficult to foresee a time in which spending in this area could be slashed or, at the very least, radically transformed. Getting aid transparency on the agenda will not be easy and may well become much harder in the years to come.