Open and shut case: Those govts that involve citizens in policy will prosper

Sunday October 2 2011


On September 20, major governments from around the world, along with representatives of civil society, launched the Open Government Partnership in New York City.

This is an initiative designed, according to the Partnership’s declaration, to increase access to information about government operations, promote citizen participation in decision-making and oversight, and improve the performance and integrity of the public sector.

It is a measure of the enormous shifts in social norms and discourse at global level that an initiative focused on government openness sounds largely uncontroversial. Which governments, after all, will today publicly deride access to information or citizen engagement in the policy process? Nevertheless, while nearly everyone today pays lip service to these ideals, most governments are far from achieving them. Some, like Ghana, have even refused to pass basic legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to access public information.

Eight governments unveiled concrete action plans for increasing government transparency at the initial launch of the Open Government Partnership: Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Philippines, South Africa, the United States, the UK, and Norway. Many more governments pledged to create action plans over the next six months to be presented at the next OGP meeting in Brazil. Among these were two from East Africa: Kenya and Tanzania.

The brilliance of an initiative like this is that, even before anyone has actually done anything to improve transparency, the peer pressure and uncomfortable questions can begin.

For example, if “open government” is as blasé as it might seem, why have Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi not followed their EAC partners?

Of course, if the OGP ends up as a self-congratulatory club of countries puffing themselves up over pretty commitments, it won’t matter that the majority of East Africa abstains. This is why the structure of the initiative is critical.

First, because the partnership comprises both civil society and government, citizen engagement is built into both the formulation and monitoring of commitments. Second, the phased approach to implementing the partnership means that civil society in countries that have pledged to join later, such as Kenya and Tanzania, can use the commitments made by the eight first-mover countries as leverage to push their governments to be more ambitious.

So how aggressive are the targets for the first eight countries? Consider Indonesia.

The Indonesian government has pledged to make available, at facility level, information about budgets, actual disbursements and actual spending for all elementary and junior high schools, and all community hospitals.

The government argues that access to information about subsidies for health, education and poverty reduction programmes will help to ensure that these subsidies are distributed fairly. It may also reduce leakage.

This information is to be complemented by transparent budget allocation and execution information at both national and district level, allowing citizens to put facility level data in a broader context.

The Philippines exemplifies another aspect of the OGP: Lead countries not only have ambitious targets, but they have in many cases already blazed a trail on transparency and civic participation that other countries might emulate.

The Philippines has committed to a bold programme of institutionalising social audits through a partnership between the auditor, executive agencies and civil society. But this builds on existing partnerships to monitor service quality at agency level between, for example, Filipino CSOs and the Public Works and Social Welfare Departments.

Kenya and Tanzania have both made selective improvements in transparency in recent years. For example, Kenya has created a web portal that provides easy access to an array of government information.

This kind of portal features in the OGP commitments of some of the eight leaders.

Both countries have experimented with Citizens’ Budgets (simplified versions of the national budget) in recent years. Nevertheless, timely and user-friendly budget and policy information at central, local and facility level continues to be scarce in both countries. The region still trails global leaders in this area.

The Open Government Partnership is not a panacea, but it is an opportunity.

Over the next six months, East Africans can use the initiative’s declaration, action plans, and timetable to put pressure on their country governments to pledge the release of information that citizens actually want and will use.

They can then proceed to monitor whether their governments comply. And they can show that this information matters by analysing it and proposing improvements to the design and implementation of public policy.

Talk is cheap. It is the responsibility of citizens to make it costly. OGP creates a framework for citizen-government collaboration at country level, but also, because of its public nature, for accountability. Shame on all of us if we fail to use it.

Dr Jason Lakin is a programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. [email protected]