A coalition of governments is fighting authoritarianism with transparency

The OGP wants to show that open government is the smart choice as well as the right one

For Sanjay Pradhan, Chief Executive of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), democracy is in a bad place. Speaking this July at the opening of the fifth OGP global summit in Tbilisi, Georgia, Pradhan claimed that human rights and civic space are under attack “as never before” from a wave of xenophobia, nationalist populism and authoritarianism.

But in the midst of the malaise, Pradhan sees “glimmers” of an alternative. In an interview with Apolitical following his address, he pointed to the reformers in countries around the world who are working to throw light on the machinery of government and increase citizens’ say in how it works. And he believes it his organisation’s duty to make this a reality, by showing that open government is not only the right choice, but also the smart one.

Getting government to open up

The OGP was founded in 2011, when eight national governments agreed to the Open Government Declaration — a promise to govern transparently and with active citizen participation. It’s since expanded, encompassing over 70 national governments and 15 subnational ones.

To participate, governments agree on actions they will take to achieve open government, such as protecting whistleblower rights and systematically publishing data on government spending. The OGP tracks these efforts through its Independent Reporting Mechanism.

There have been notable successes. For example, some 46 countries within the partnership have committed to open contracting — the public disclosure of all government procurement projects.

Alongside anti-corruption work, the OGP has recently emphasised the importance of involving the public in service design and delivery. “In addition to just electing the next government, citizens need to be able to have a say and shape the policies and services that impact them,” said Pradhan.

As an example, he cites the Eyes and Ears program in Kaduna, a state in Nigeria and an OGP member.

A few years ago, the state promised to build a new hospital which was never finished. To stop this happening again, it built an app through which citizens could upload pictures of public infrastructure projects. They were able to keep track of buildings as they went up, holding government to account. It’s been downloaded hundreds of times, and there’s since been a record number of construction completions — 500 schools and 200 hospitals.

“The beauty of OGP, where it works, is that it empowers civic activists and reformers to make change happen”

It shows that making government transparent can have a big impact. “If you tell people: ‘I disclosed open data’, no-one cares,” said Pradhan. “But they really cared about that local hospital in Kaduna, and they didn’t get it. And then all of a sudden they see it’s been built, it really makes a difference in their lives.”

Such initiatives are intended as a corrective to the disempowerment that have led to the rise of authoritarianism across the world. “Citizens have felt left behind and worse-off by globalisation, but, together with that, they have felt powerless to shape or respond to government policies — they find government to be ruled by elites that are disconnected from them, captured by self interest or corruption.”

The trick is to show that making such reforms are not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing. Ukraine saved $1 billion after creating an open contracting system that allowed citizens to track which contracts were completed.

Pushing back

Despite its successes, OGP hasn’t been immune to anti-democratic currents. In recent years Hungary, Turkey and Tanzania have exited the partnership, while Azerbaijan has been suspended for failing to deal with constraints on NGO activity. OGP’s reporting mechanism is designed to convert promises into action, but when governments don’t have the will to commit, they drop out of the movement.

“It’s glimmers. It’s not yet a bright shining light”

For Pradhan, in addition to showing the alternative, OGP should acknowledge these setbacks and challenge them, rather than sweep them under the carpet.

“When [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban says that it’s the end of liberal democracy, we need our heads of state and ministers and mayors to speak out,” he said. He sees the OGP approach as two-pronged, showing a positive example, and pushing back on those who do the opposite.

Since its foundation, OGP has assembled a coalition of reformers and activists in government, civil society and business.

Through bringing them together, by directly liaising between government and civil society, via events such as the summit or through promoting their stories and experiences, it’s able to provide them with the oxygen and support they need to continue the work within their own spheres. “The beauty of OGP, where it works, is that it empowers civic activists and reformers to make change happen — it gives them a platform to combine forces,” he said. “It’s glimmers. It’s not yet a bright shining light.”

Ultimately, bringing together so many people whose hands are on the levers of government leads to its own change. “As soon as the speech was over, the mayor of La Libertad [in Peru] came to me,” said Pradhan. “He showed me that he was WhatsApping his cabinet — they wanted to make change happen, but he wanted to know where they could get the relevant experience from.” Thanks to OGP, he could get it from people in the very same room. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Flickr/TED Conference)

 

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