Advancing Global Public Engagement through the Open Government Partnership

By David Stern

My colleague Daniel Clark and I were fortunate to participate in last week’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) meeting in Brasilia.  It was a unique moment for open government communities in the US and throughout the world.

Some context: The OGP is a network of 54 countries that have made commitments to become more open, transparent, and participatory.  Read more about OGP here. This meeting brought together representatives from approximately 75 countries – presumably there were some prospective members in the ranks.

The meeting, along with the recently released National Action Plans and our prior experiences with OGP, left me guardedly optimistic that the OGP can have a huge impact in the years ahead.  It has the potential to be an enduring force for greater citizen engagement with government throughout the world.

Before elaborating, let me explain the lens through which I experienced the event.  Operating under our international brand, Global Voices, AmericaSpeaks played a leading role in the event’s online engagement program, which (though hamstrung by poor network connection at the venue) included a webcast, live chat, and Meetups to watch the event. Daniel and I also presented at an interactive side event on public engagement where attendees included representatives of the US, Brazil, Moldova, Israel, Kenya, and other countries.

What OGP Means

As we planned these activities, I honestly wondered: What does the partnership’s existence mean for participation in the US, and for public participation in other parts of the world?  After participating in the event, I now have an answer – or perhaps multiple answers.

Viewed optimistically, OGP is a carrot that rewards openness with positive publicity, both domestically and abroad.  It is a stick that can embarrass countries that fall short of the standards set by their peers.  It is a network for cross-country exchange of best practices and effective strategies for creating greater openness.  And it is a platform for innovators to experiment with and spread good ideas throughout the world.

Viewed pessimistically, the OGP is a propaganda mechanism with little capacity for monitoring and enforcement; simply a way for the US to advance its foreign policy goals without any meaningful improvements or contributions to democracy and public engagement.

US Impact

In the case of the US, so far the optimistic view seems to be justified.  Having being mostly inactive on the participation front after the early days of the Obama administration, the US government’s leadership position in the partnership has spurred a number of new initiatives.  We The People, a new e-petition site where White House staff respond to popular petitions, is off to a good start, having engaged more than 2 million people in its first 6 months of operation and enabled the public to influence policy on at least a couple of occasions. Regulations.gov is rethinking its public participation interface and functionality. It has also released APIs that allow third parties to interact with their content.  ExpertNet is moving forward, albeit slowly, and with a different approach than originally envisioned.  We haven’t heard from the administration on its commitment to develop best practices and metrics for public engagement just yet.

Perhaps most notably, the US government has been far more engaged with domestic civil society since the creation of the Open Government Partnership, as I can personally attest, having been called upon to manage one of the civil society advisory teams.

Meanwhile, Brazil passed a Freedom of Information Act law as a direct result of its role in the partnership, a very significant (if overdue) step.

However, the leadership demonstrated by the US and Brazil may be a function of their position as the Partnership’s two founding co-chairs.  For most of the countries now joining, it’s not yet clear whether optimism is warranted.  It’s somewhat surprising that countries like Jordan and Russia were able to join the partnership.  What does it mean for non-democratic governments to be members?  Libya and Tunisia were featured prominently at the event.  While each recently replaced dictatorships, it’s not clear whether their new governments are taking steps to ensure that the bureaucracies they are building are transparent and focused on public engagement.  Will the Partnership penalize or expel countries if the goals they include in their action plans are not meaningful or are not implemented?  Will expulsion serve as a significant disincentive?

Diverse Nations with Overlapping Challenges & Opportunities

The session that Daniel and I led was one of the few moments at the conference where those who cared as much (if not more) about public participation as they do about transparency and open data gathered in a single place.

As you might expect, there were significant variations between countries due to their own unique populations, cultures, levels of development, and legal systems. Israel faces vast linguistic and cultural barriers to involving its entire citizenry given its high percentage of non-Hebrew-speaking citizens, including Arabic, Russian, and Amharic speakers. In our session and throughout the event, the distinction with perhaps the greatest implications for participation and open government seemed to be the one between the countries with great technology resources and high internet penetration rates and those where  vast swaths of the population are mostly cut off from the web.

Yet many of the challenges reported by participants in our session were extremely familiar.  How do you get government officials to move beyond using public engagement as a way to market themselves and instead provide genuine opportunities for the public to have an impact on policy?  How do you get people to show up to the online or face-to face forum you’ve provided so they can weigh in on a critical issue of public policy?  How do you avoid the hijacking of open input opportunities by well-organized advocacy groups seeking to advance particular interests rather than gathering input from representatives of society as a whole?

Of course, we at AmericaSpeaks have been working on these and most of the other public engagement challenges that came up at our side event for years. In this context, the potential value of cross-country pollination – in spite of national differences – seemed quite clear.

Areas for Progress and Collaboration

I’m optimistic that countries will be able to share technology and best practices, as I came across several examples of this kind of sharing. A number of people noted that Data.gov and We The People, the US e-petition platform, will both soon be open sourced, meaning that other countries can adopt them without assuming the cost and risk of building complex new software.  A representative of the Philippines’ government suggested that the success of open government in their country to date has stemmed directly from the fact that it is housed within the agency that controls budgeting, and thus has the power to grant or withhold funding depending on compliance with the openness mandate.  It was fascinating to see other country representatives in the room note this “power of the purse” with significant interest (as well as a hint of amusement).

Another reason I’m optimistic is that, while I’ve not read many of the plans, I am excited about a couple of specific public participation-related programs that have been reported on.  First, Ukraine, Slovak Republic, Moldova and Montenegro have all committed to using online e-petition platforms to collect and respond to citizens’ proposals.  E-petitioning is not without its flaws, but on balance this is a very positive development.  I think we will learn a lot from the diversity of their experiences.

Second, Bulgaria, Croatia and Tanzania are all creating “citizens’ budgets” at the national or local levels to inform the public how resources are being spent in plain, accessible language.  These can be used not only as a path to distribute government information to the public but also to allow the public to influence the allocation of funds.

Finally there seems to be significant energy in various corners of the world around citizen participation in the legislative process.  The devil is in the details, but Brazil’s e-Democracia project offers a helpful model, as it was developed from within the legislature.  Appropriately, e-Democracia received a lot of attention at the event.

Will this OGP thing have legs? Will public participation and democratic engagement remain a core focus for the initiative in the years to come? In short, we don’t know, but the initial signs are quite positive.  We should have a better idea regarding OGP’s value and future at the next annual meeting in London.

Hope to see you there!

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