Having been involved in promoting the Open Government Partnership over the past couple of years in Africa, I have had a couple of experiences that have introduced a nagging worry at the back of my head that has continued to grow. Today, in conversation with colleagues at OpentheGovernment.org, where I am spending my days, the nagging worry codified into a coherent worry. Keep in mind that this is the beginning of the thought and I doubt that it is an original thought at all but I shall tag the gurus in this space – you know the likes of Alex Howard, John Wonderlich of Sunlight Foundation, the integrilicious Nathaniel Heller and Martin Tisne as well as others.
Martin recently put up a blog where he reviewed the vast successes of OGP (and I have to agree, they are many). It is unprecedented to have so many countries voluntarily sign on to an international governance initiative without fear of sanctions and reprisals. There are global treaties that have taken literally decades to get ratified by the same number of countries as OGP, which grew in just 3-4 yers. From Brazil to Kenya and Senegal to Bali and Mongolia, it is encouraging to see many countries coming together voluntarily upon a great idea that can help change their citizens’ lives for the better. In the same way a parent worries about a well behaved teenager who wants to go out on her first rave, I am having this nagging worry about how we protect the gains and momentum that OGP has had in these past few years.
I am worried that the Open Government Partnership, while a laudable and useful tool to strengthen the position of the citizen in the general governance area, is too dependent on individual whim to be sustainable in the long term.
Take the US for example: today my distant cousin 🙂 Barack Obama stands at the forefront of the open agenda. He brought “Open By Default” back stronger and better than during the clinton days. He has pushed the Open Government Partnership agenda fairly strongly and consistently all through. It will be remembered that George W Bush didn’t much care for it and so the US government did not work too hard to go above and beyond the requirements of the US Freedom Of Information Act (FOYA).
So here’s the hypothetical. Suppose the president that comes after Obama holds a policy inclination that Open Government is rather lower on her list of priorities than it currently is? Would the US be as proactive in opening up government? Of course, it helps a great deal that a lot of the tenets of open government are enshrined in law and therefore they would likely hold.
The situation in many other countries that are voluntarily participating in the Open Government initiative is that as governments change, so do their priorities and perspectives. On such matters as OGP where the participation is not enshrined in a treaty, governments participate (or don’t) based on the prevailing whim of their leadership. It is possible that whim may seem like a strong word such as it is, but a lot of government policy is whimsical in the beginning until it is protected in law by an Act of whatever National Assembly structure in the country.
In Africa for example, OGP is quietly viewed by some significantly influential leaders as a foreign agenda that is driven by the west (which in the face of the renewed Pan-African agenda 2063 is freshly relevant) and therefore Africans must define what Open might mean for them and its level of priority. “I have two views for you,” said a senior government official to me, “Officially, we support OGP wholeheartedly. Unofficially, we are not so sure it is for Africa.” I have heard this train of thought multiple times from at least 3 countries.
As I spend some time thinking through the participation of CSOs in government, I find that their position seems to be as fickle. “At least there is still funding for Open Government and so our work is likely to continue,” said a senior official of a CSO. I’m not so sure. A lot of the money for the work that CSOs do come from the global aid agencies and international donor agencies. Often, the priorities for these organisations change radically based on their analysis of what they are likely to have impact on. If government loose interest, it is not inconcievable that funding for Open Government could easily dry up.
I suppose one solution to my worry is to work fast while governments have interest to enshrine such things as freedom of information, proactive disclosure and participatory budgeting in law as quickly as possible and try to make sure that “machine readable formats” are legislated. This way even if OGP is no longer sexy, its value remains.
But the ideal situation is to protect its longevity by sustaining the participation of governments inspite of the changes in electoral cycles.