Northern Ireland 21st December 2016

Reflections on the OGP Summit

by David McBurney

It’s dry and sunny in Paris, but at the OGP Civil Society Morning there’s a somber mood.

The Results of Early OGP Initiatives report launched at the Summit, captured OGP success stories and showed that the participation of civil society can have a significant impact. But the usual optimism of open government reformers has been deflated by the new global political context. Previous conferences had warned about restrictions, surveillance and ongoing secrecy. At the 2016 gathering significant new challenges take centre stage.

The future’s not what it used to be.

Inequality is growing. Trust in government is at rock bottom. And few people believe what politicians say anymore. Rigged in favour of corporate elites, the reality of the Democracy Game had been dramatically exposed.

Those just about managing, who were just about totally ignored for years, had kicked out at a political class whose focus was elsewhere. And a populist vote in the face of insecurity, inequality and austerity had dictated that the UK will leave the EU and Trump will be in the Whitehouse.

Now a cabal of dangerous clowns had joined the political circus in Westminster and Washington to negotiate the terms of Brexit and run the most powerful country in the world. Scapegoating, racism and xenophobia polarised society. Civic space was closing. Democracy was broken.

Manish Bapna, Co-chair of the OGP Steering Committee, put things in a wider global context when he talked about two inter-linked challenges:

“The moral challenge of 700 million people in extreme poverty, living on less than $2 a day, and the existential challenge of a changing climate … these point to a failure of governance and, if we are honest, to a lack of open government that truly connects, engages and meets the needs of all people.”

“Too many people feel excluded and marginalized. They believe that only elites reap the benefits of growth and globalization. They feel left out of decision-making. They distrust public institutions. How we collectively confront these challenges will be OGP’s most important test.”

Paul Maassen, OGP Director, Civil Society Engagement provided an up-date:

  • The space for civil society to operate is closing across the world, including in many OGP countries.
  • There’s shallow awareness and ownership of open government across governments and civil society.
  • Overall, there are low levels of ambition and implementation of commitments.
  • OGP “rules of the game” are seen as relatively weak in design and enforcement. Countries get in that shouldn’t, stay in despite undermining OGP principles, get away with not doing the OGP process right or not delivering on their promises.

Maassen insisted that if dialogue to build trust is helpful in good times, it is essential in polarised times. We need to move from participating elites to participating masses:

“There will be appetite for active citizenship if through OGP citizens get real opportunities to allocate budgets, unmask corruption or audit the quality of service delivery and get governments to address their grievances.”

Later that morning, Manish Bapna described 5 key challenges facing politicians and civic society and the role open government must play in solving them:

  1. We must protect civic space – the rights to free speech, assembly and association. Serious violations of these rights have been reported by CIVICUS in over 100 countries. In 25 active OGP countries, these rights are repressed or obstructed. We must make the protection of civic space an important component of OGP National Action Plans
  2. We must foster citizen-centered governance and move beyond co-creation towards a situation where citizens have a full voice in policy making.
  3. We must make changes that are transformational, not incremental: “be willing to go further, faster”.
  4. We need to make a real difference in people’s lives. This means addressing the issues people care about, from providing basic services to fighting corruption to using natural resources wisely.
  5. We need to reinvigorate the Partnership’s political leadership. “As current leaders step down, we call on a new coalition of leaders from all levels of government and civil society to take Open Government to the next level.” This means broadening the number of countries and commitments and deepening impact within countries to create lasting change.

The clear message coming from the Summit was that:

“While open government alone can’t fix the world’s problems, they can’t be solved without it.”

Back home in Belfast it’s rainy and cold. And BBC News is reporting on the latest scandal to rock the foundations of the NI Executive – something about a botched heating scheme that has the tax-payer on the hook for about £0.5billion.

The words of another OGP Summit speaker have renewed resonance:

“Some people are right not to trust their government.”

The reality of the challenges to openness hits home:

If democracy is about creating the conditions that make it possible for citizens to better their lives, then the role of an open government network should be to help make power responsive to people’s hopes and needs.

If democracy depends on the existence of a demos — a politically engaged and empowered citizenry – it’s our job to support that citizenry.

It’s not our job to restore trust in government – only government can do this through their actions. But we do have a role in holding decision makers to account. And we do have a role in promoting methods of effective deliberative citizen engagement.

We need to speak up about the realities of corruption, environmental degradation and inequality.