Points of View 29th October 2015

Spoiling the magic trick that lies behind OGP

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.

In my last post from the Open Government Partnership summit in Mexico this week I talked about the ‘magic of OGP’ being the focus on the collaborative development of national action plans. The trouble is that both the words ‘collaboration’ and, even more so, ‘magic’ hide a lot. As a result they aren’t that helpful for those not directly involved to really understand what it is that drives OGP.

This was brought home to me yesterday when I was talking to a civil society activist from a country yet to join OGP. She sees real value in the OGP, is worried that civil society back home is too distrustful of government to grab the opportunity if the government starts to engage with the partnership and wondered what I had learnt from helping to coordinate the CSO network in the UK.

Distilling my thoughts into a few sentences helped clarify for me one of the key things that I think has made the OGP work in the UK. But in doing so it also reminded me again about how fragile it all is. This was confirmed by stories in the sessions across the summit.

In the UK the OGP has had the impact it has for many reasons. But central to it has been the commitment of a core group of CSOs outside government and a core group of civil servants inside. These are individuals and organisations sharing the same broad vision of what value open government will bring to the citizens of the UK. But this would not be enough. Critically they have worked together through some significant challenges to the process and built up the trust needed to have open lines of communication when the going gets tough.

All of this has been made much easier by the minister responsible for the OGP, first Francis Maude and now Matt Hancock, creating the political space for the civil servants to act collaboratively, talk openly and honestly about the challenges they face inside government and to be creative in the way they work with us to solve problems as they arise. What strikes me most about the civil servants we work with on OGP is that they are much less worried about the hierarchy of the civil service. They have space to solve problems autonomously without constantly needing to get permission from someone higher up the food chain.

So my advice to the civil society activist was to try to find like minded reformers inside and outside of government. Once she’s found them it will be helpful to try to find ways to get them political cover to act differently, to take risks and get out of their comfort zones as they explore ways to work together to identify challenging reforms to open up government.

I left the conversation with some unease though. My experience of OGP is that it is dependent on a very small number of individuals particulalry within government. Such dependency on two or three people is a real risk to the process. We heard yesterday how a change in government can both be positive, opening up significantly more space for reform, or incredibly dangerous as civic space shrinks and civil society actors harassed and arrested.

The trouble with building strong relationships with individuals is that they work and can divert attention from the risks attached to having a small number of relationships. A key task in the UK will be for the CSO network to work with our colleagues in government to deepen and widen our links across government.

The magic circle banishs any magician who exposes how a trick works. I don’t think that the OGP works like that. We need to understand the magic so that we can make the partnership, both at national and international level, stronger.