Reflections from the OGP Americas Summit

16 November 2014

I’ve spent the past week at the OGP Americas summit, in San Jose, Costa Rica. A number of things struck me about the way I personally think about OGP, and about the way that OGP might evolve in the future.

Open Government as a redistribution of power

As far as I can tell, Open Government is essentially about power. We are asking for the power to sit not solely in the hands of the few who are in government, but rather be spread among the population in question. We want data, and to be able to turn this into information, to make informed decisions ourselves, we want there to be strong and effective accountability mechanisms so that citizens can make their opinions known, and, crucially, we want people in government to actually carry out what citizens want, among other demands.

This is an enormous set of demands. This, if done right, would be a total change in the way basically everyone around the world understands democratic governments. It would change the most for those actually in government; in terms of culture, in terms of understanding their role - as that of a representative of their people, rather than necessarily as a decision-maker - and in terms of the way they behave.

I do wonder sometimes though, whether ‘open government’ is actually understood as route towards fairer redistribution of power by governments who are signing up to it. I don’t mean to sound overly cynical, but very few people actually want to give up power, and that is precisely what we are asking them to do. Personally, I can think of some politicians who genuinely consider their role to be that of representative, and I can think of many more who crave power and influence, and who won’t give it up without a fight.

OGP as a commitment to improving (not a stamp of approval)

Let’s be honest: if we considered membership to the Open Government Partnership to be a sign that a government was already fully respecting human rights, or even that they were well on their way to doing so, there would be very, very few (if any) governments who could join. Founding members include Mexico, the US, the UK, Indonesia… and activists from both of these countries could point out numerous, widespread human rights violations.

So when we think of OGP, it is probably more helpful not to think of it in itself as a declaration of ‘opennness’ or transparency, but as a commitment to improving. Member countries aren’t members because they are already open or transparent, but because they want to become more so. Of course, this is still problematic in many ways: there is nothing to stop OGP being used as a technique of ‘openwashing’ - ie, essentially a PR strategy to gloss over their human rights violations - but at least (perhaps naively) it means that there are some people within that government who are dedicated to encouraging transparency and accountability within the government in question.

This only brings value, though, if those people are actually taken seriously. There are numerous cases of governments signing up to OGP, and subsequently the human rights situation in that country getting worse. In these cases, where the flagrant abuse of human rights only gets worse after having signed up (within a reasonable time frame, of course) I do feel like the OGP can, or should, take action.

OGP as a part of a much bigger, human, picture

As mentioned above: OGP will only bring value if it’s taken seriously within government. It will also only bring value if a few key parts of the ‘democracy’ puzzle are already in place: namely, respect of basic human rights, both offline and online.

While it might be outside of the scope of OGP to directly campaign for many of those human rights, I strongly feel that there is a role to play for OGP to support activists in member countries in times of need, and especially when there are very real threats to basic and related rights violations, like freedom of speech. That said, from what I’ve seen, there is very little placing of open government within a rights based framework; so perhaps first there should be a shift in how we understand what we’re working on, when we talk about OGP.

The clearest example of related rights violations was mentioned numerous times throughout the week, following the tragic case of the 43 disappeared students in Mexico. During the opening plenary of the conference, Mexican civil society carried out a peaceful protest, by walking out from the first few rows of the audience seats, and leaving photos of the missing students on each of those seats. They lined the exit pathway, holding banners with slogans like Justice for Ayotzinapa, and handed out stickers.

I doubt there were many dry eyes in the audience watching this, as it was incredibly moving. For me, it was also the most human act I’ve seen within the ‘open’ space for the last four years I’ve been working in it. Too often we talk about ‘open’ as ‘neutral’ - but it’s not. This was a powerful act of political activism, which moved us concretely away from fairly abstract ideas of citizens or the public to real, actual people, with real families; the tragedy provides a strong argument for why open government is needed. It brought Open Government back to real life, took a strong political stance, and I am incredibly grateful that they did this.

So far, I’ve seen one example of OGP stepping up to defend human rights; when the IRM researcher from Montenegro was threatened by the government, a number of organisations including the OGP released a letter of support for her. This was a particular case though, as she was threatened for activities directly relating to her work for the OGP; what about when the human rights violations don’t directly relate to the activities of OGP contractors or employees?

So maybe we need to situate OGP within the bigger picture a little more. Clearly, for open government to work, other basic human rights need to be respected, whether they be online, or offline, and it’s naive to think of open government as not being tightly connected to those other parts of the puzzle.

OGP as a space for dialogue

OGP as a forum can be incredibly powerful. This week alone, activists came face to face with the President and Vice President of Costa Rica, as well as multiple other government officials; providing that space is valuable to allowing both parties to hear from each other. Civil society groups from around Latin America had a chance to share what has worked and not worked in their countries, and, at least in the case of Mexico, come together in solidarity.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me from this week, is that the importance of this international community is not to be underestimated; while it’s difficult to tell if some government commitments are simply lip service or not, it’s clear that there is a passionate, dedicated and active community of activists working to strengthen their democracies, and this gives me a lot of hope for the big challenges ahead.


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