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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Open Government Partnership plans throw up important ideas, even for by-standers

The Open Government Partnership-Australia and New Zealand do not belong-now has 57 members, with Finland the latest to sign on.(By the by, they are seeking nominations for an International Expert Panel, to oversee its Independent Reporting Mechanism so interesting to see if we have takers-country OGP membership is not a prerequisite.)

A membership requirement based on the idea that everyone has something to learn, and scope for improvement, is to lodge a national action plan

Global Integrity in Washington has just published this analysis of the plans submitted by 45 member countries. A lot of what they say is instructive even for those sitting on the sideline.

Open Data' and 'E-Government' are the most popular commitment categories across the Partnership. accounting for nearly a third of all open government planned activities. Prompting this comment by the author:
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.

'Citizen Engagement' (not one of Australia's strongpoints)  and 'Access to Information' were the other major categories of activities.

Observations about what's not in the plans also resonate:

 The missing link?
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.
Legislate, don’t “innovate”
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.

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