It is always encouraging to see countries strive to modernize the machinery of government, but the preponderance of information technology projects in national action plans deserves further consideration. The appetite for neat technological fixes to complex problems shouldn’t eclipse the need for politically difficult but fundamental reform. Eventually all technological solutions run into the limits imposed by the institutional, legal, political, and socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded. Therefore, essential reforms should be encouraged from the outset to alleviate the unique structural constraints prevalent in particular country contexts. Doing that would expand the frontier of possibility so open data and related technologies can maximize their potential. (Read Tom Slee and David Eaves’ exchanges for an incisive analysis on the promise and limits of open data.) Case in point, there is no technological shortcut to greater judicial transparency in India. Ultimately even the most vibrant open data community and efficient judicial records management system will be undermined by the lack of legislation mandating asset disclosures across the judiciary.
Private sector issues are conspicuously underrepresented in country action plans. Only 44 tags cover issues such as public private partnerships, regulations, private sector transparency, and corporate social responsibility initiatives, to name a few. For the OGP to truly become a broad-based multi-stakeholder initiative, commitments should address the openness of the private sector especially in crucial sectors such as extractives and financial services. Moreover, the Partnership must carve a meaningful role for private sector organizations. It would be a terrible waste of opportunity to ignore the resources and capabilities that the private sector can bring to the table especially considering their active participation in development projects at the behest of governments and international organizations. The yawning gap in awareness and enthusiasm among private sector companies for OGP will need to be addressed strategically by measures that go beyond merely engaging them as suppliers for the Networking Mechanism.
Another blind spot in action plans is the marginalization of commitments dealing with the legislative and judicial branches of government. Most commitments focus on government departments under the purview of the executive branch, privileging “innovative” solutions like e-government over the more fundamental and politically fraught legislative and judicial reforms, which are key if the OGP is to embody the grandest notions of open government. Worryingly few commitments are ambitious enough to tackle harder, “stretch” issues such as campaign finance, public asset disclosure, financial services sector transparency, etc., which require the passage of broader statutory reforms. As the Partnership develops, country governments will need to tackle crucial institutional challenges through legislation so the change in the culture of government sought by the OGP can firmly take hold.
There were other surprises as well: Despite the financial crisis giving way to a long tail of persistent recessions globally, not a single country directly commits to opening up financial institutions or services. Similarly, only 10 activities explicitly relate to extractive industries and natural resource issues. One would think that easy access to soft standards like the EITI—with the United States joining as a recent prominent signatory—would make these commitments more attractive for countries to include in their national action plans.