Points of View 9th August 2013

Tackling “thorny issues” of open government at the OGP London summit

by JavierRuiz

The Open Government Partnership summit in London is gaining momentum, as evidenced by the growing engagement from civil society organisations. The OGP is reaching an important milestone, with the closure of its first cycle of country commitments and independent assessments.

The summit will be an inclusive space where governments can announce inspiring projects and collaborate with civil society. But this does not have to mean shying away from tackling difficult questions around open government.

Last week, UK civil society organisations held a meeting to discuss the summit. One proposal was making these areas of potential conflict explicit by creating a specific track for “thorny issues”. This would show the OGP is a confident process that takes these matters seriously.

The following areas would be suitable for inclusion. Some have already been proposed as a concrete session, while others are just an idea looking for more partners:

1. Transparency and private public services

Private companies have an important role to play in many of the areas covered by the OGP, such as the extractive industries and fiscal transparency. But this session will focus on the increasing provision of public services by private companies.

These companies tend to be excluded from “Right to Information” laws. Where there is information available, this is normally limited to narrow terms of contract delivery, making it difficult to assess overall performance and value for money.

2. Openness and privacy

Open data and transparency programmes can have privacy impacts, which could also lower acceptance and engagement from citizens. From a different perspective, we may also find that privacy can be used as an excuse to hinder transparency.

In some cases these tensions will involve personal data that is published in the public interest, such as subsidies, taxes, registers, judicial documents, etc. Another potential conflict is the publication of data from public services – schools, hospitals, welfare, etc. This kind of data is normally “anonymised”, but there are growing concerns about the risks of re-identification of individuals by combining different data sources.

An international workshop on this topic will have to analyse how to balance diverse regulatory approaches with upholding fundamental principles on privacy and the protection of personal data.

Privacy International and Open Rights Group are coordinating this session.

3. Surveillance and national security

The recent confirmation of the existence of mass internet surveillance programmes by several industrialised nations is a game-changer that brings into question some of the assumptions that have underpinned the relations between open government, surveillance and national security.

Few will question that there is a role for secrecy and special powers. But the blanket exemptions for national security from most transparency programmes and right to information laws may have gone too far. In some countries there is no basic information on the legal basis of surveillance programmes, or the size of their overall budget. Many civil society organisations are demanding more targeted surveillance and better accountability.

More fundamentally, we may need to revisit the unspoken presumption in open government circles that there is no need to justify collecting increasing amounts of data on citizens because eventually something good will come out of it.

Open Society Foundations, Open Rights Group and Tactical Technology Collective are coordinating this session.

4. Protection for whistleblowers

There are growing concerns that despite an increase in commitment to openness, many OGP countries are actually ratcheting up the persecution of whistleblowers. Besides several high profile cases with international resonance there are many less known cases throughout the world.

Several organisations, including OSF, have expressed interest in organising sessions on this important topic. Please get in touch.

5. Citizens’ rights, practical tools and government commitments

Groups involved int he OGP have alternative approaches to openness. This has been characterised in simple terms as involving on one side Right to Information veterans, who have focused for a long time on getting government to implement legislation. One the other side would be Open Data activists that, instead of driving policy, develop practical technology solutions to provide access to public information. Of course the reality is a more complex. Nowadays most people in the field will agree that transparency and accountability require both laws and tools, plus citizen engagement and infomediaries.

There are concerns, however, that the OGP may be skewing this balance with its focus on voluntary commitments by the executive branches of government that lack legally enforceable mechanisms. The problems arise when the same governments that propose national plans with excellent aspects are simultaneously weakening Right to Information legislation or the role of civil society.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information are coordinating this proposal.

The proposals above are all in a shared online document that attempts to collate all the sessions proposed by civil society groups. Please add the details of any proposals you are developing to that spreadsheet, and get in contact with anyone who is developing an idea you would be interested in supporting.

It is important to get international collaborations to shape the sessions. Particularly, let us know if you know of any government representatives from your country who are coming to the summit and may be interested in participating in these panels.

There is a growing consensus that the summit should reflect the diversity and multistakeholder nature of the OGP. A criteria for acceptance into the programme should be that panels are gender balanced and include representation from the majority world.

The deadline for presenting complete proposals to the OGP summit team is the 1st of September.