The government of Kenya recently hosted the first ever OGP regional forum in Africa. The event aimed to establish guidelines for OGP activities for African countries, to track and take stock of progress on the agenda to date, and to think about how to Africanise the global OGP movement further. It attracted a range of delegates from across the continent involved and interested in the pursuit of open governance – government representatives, civil society actors, academia, the media, private sector, and multilateral institutions (see link for details).
Open governance is built on the principle of the universal right to access to information on the conduct of government and it places its value in enhancing effective public oversight. It aims to open up government affairs (previously kept secret), to make it easier to scrutinise public officers and hold them to account. The argument is that access to government information enhances public participation and facilitates the audit of government actions. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a new multilateral global governance and transparency initiative formed in 2011. It aims to secure commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. The OGP outlines a set of principles augmented by a declaration that form the basis of the open government. To date, 45 countries (three African) have endorsed the declaration, 11 others (two African) are currently processing commitments and many more across the globe are working towards attaining eligibility.
At the heart of the event was the question of how different partners could together put in place a strategy to strengthen open governance in the continent and bring forth an African perspective to the global OGP movement. Participants shared their experiences on the push for open and transparent institutions, accountable to the people, and brainstormed ideas on how the global OGP could respond. Discussions focused on: the role of big data, public statistics, analytics and technology’s role in improving service delivery; managing extractive industries to ensure processes are open, transparent, participatory and accountable; and how to leverage technology and the media to bolster citizen engagement and enhance public integrity.
Key issues emerging from the discussions included:
- Inadequate understanding of the concept of open governance in Africa;
- The absence of strong champions for the agenda;
- The impact of technocratic language used by OGP practitioners and how it fails to resonate with people at local level;
- The lack of engagement among African leaders/governments and failure to share experiences;
- The apparent overlap in governance monitoring mechanisms (OGP, African Union and United Nations, African Peer Review Mechanism etc ) and how this could be stifling progress;
- The need to explore both supply and demand side issues in scaling up OGP;
- The quality of information coming through existing open governance platforms;
- The inadequate engagement of African legislatures and private sector who have great influence, political muscle and interest in good governance in the continent.
The Civil Society/Government disconnect
Participants made the point that success of the OGP depends largely on trust and cooperation between government and civil society. Nonetheless, deliberations over the two-day conference illustrated the clear tension between government and CSOs that must be addressed if we are to achieve meaningful progress.
There is currently a clear disconnect between the motivations, intentions and expectations of civil society and those of government, despite both working towards the common good of the citizen. Much work related to open governance appears to be taking place in silos with little coordination, mutual awareness and strategy. Though the need for effective partnerships between government and CSOs was emphasised, participants cautioned against very cosy relationships that create complacency and that could potentially jeopardise the watchdog role played by civil society.
“The era of sloganeering, CSO obstruction, political activism is gone […] CSOs must reorient and repackage their engagement with government [… they] must begin to perceive themselves as partners with government” – (Fred Matiang’i, Cabinet Secretary for ICT – Kenya)
It is our view that the African OGP steering committee must support states and civil society to collaborate with sufficient space for objective and constructive CSO monitoring and feedback in the role of ‘critical friend’. This will ensure better delivery and further progress in open governance.
Transforming commitments into action
It is encouraging that three African states are already members of the OGP, two others are processing commitments and a couple of others are eligible and looking to submit applications for membership. However, real success of the OGP will depend on implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the action plans developed by participating countries. Otherwise OGP membership risks being viewed as an end (utilised to score political mileage in the global political economy) rather than a means towards a greater goal of realising good governance and transparent and accountable government institutions.
We think that the OGP support unit must play an active role in monitoring participants to ensure they invest sufficiently in open governance, set realistic goals in their action plans, implement and accurately report on progress. Further, it must safeguard against monopolisation of the process by government (capable of overstating progress and being overambitious in planning) and minimising dialogue between CSOs and government. The African experience must, in turn, inform the wider movement.