Points of View 27th October 2015

What’s the point of the Open Government Summit? No, really, what’s the point?

by Simon Burall

Simon is director of the public participation think tank and charity Involve and a member of the Open Government Network's steering group.

I’m writing this having just got off the plane that took to the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico. It’s never a good sign when the person next to you spots what you are writing and decides to challenge you on how useless democracy is. How money has corrupted democracy and it is just a fig leaf for the most powerful. It’s worse when they find out why you’re on the plane in the first place; an international summit of do gooders is like a red rag to a bull.

It’s easy to be cynical about open government and democracy; there’s lots wrong with it and it is often more observed in the breach than in reality. The words are used too easily to cover-up bad policy decisions, bad policy outcomes and corruption. It’s even easier to be cynical about international summits; 2000 people travelling to Mexico to talk about open government is, for some (and if I’m honest even a little bit for me), a huge PR open goal.

And yet.

The OGP is like no other international process I’ve been involved in (and I’ve been involved in more than my fair share). There are precious few international (or national) organisations and processes that place government and civil society firmly on a level with equal power at the main decision-making forum. There are even fewer where governments make joint commitments with civil society to push themselves to be more open, more participative and more accountable. To top it all these commitments are independently reviewed rather than peer reviewed in the style of mutual back-slapping.

Why does it work? Beyond all of the features that I highlight above, what really draws me to the OGP is that it focuses on creating a space where reformers inside government and civil society can work together, learn from each other, push and inspire each other, and more recalcitrant individuals back home, to make deeper, more challenging reforms.

It’s certainly the aspect that I felt helped to make the second OGP action plan in the UK more stretching and further reaching.

Recent reports from the Independent Review Mechanism suggest that this perception about the impact of the OGP is real.

I’m not starry eyed about the OGP – how could I be when the UK has the FOI Commission looming over the our third action plan process like an unwanted guest at a wedding. The risk that the Summit could descend into a round of celebratory backslapping and fine words resulting in no genuine action is real.

It’s going to be for all of the reformers, both inside and outside government, to keep the focus firmly on learning and action so that we come back home with more than the warm glow that results from interesting conversations.