The parting of the red tape: Is it just another global talking-shop—or a fresh approach to shaking out government secrecy?
Date: 8th October 2011
UGANDA is not best known as a testbed for new ideas in governance. But research there by Jakob Svensson at the University of Stockholm and colleagues suggested that giving people health-care performance data and helping them organise to submit complaints cut the death rate in under-fives by a third. Publishing data on school budgets reduced the misuse of funds and increased enrolment.
Whether dewy-eyed or hard-edged, examples abound of the benefits of open government—the idea that citizens should be able see what the state is up to. Estonians track which bureaucrats have looked at their file. Indians scrutinise officials’ salaries painted on village walls. Russians help redraft laws. Norwegians examine how much tax the oil industry pays. Many see openness as a cure for corruption and incompetence in public administration. The problem is how to turn the fan base into an effective lobby.
A new global club may help. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), launched last month at the UN, sets basic standards of openness, such as publishing a draft state budget. Any country that meets them can join. Eight (America, Brazil, Britain, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines and South Africa) are already members. Another 70 are eligible.
This year’s ICEGOV, a big e-governance shindig, was held in Estonia, a leader in the field. People from some 60 countries watched a slick American presentation about the OGP, all sophisticated websites and happy citizens. Some officials there queried the list of eligible countries, which include such beacons of openness as Russia and Azerbaijan. But just joining will mean nothing: members must make annual promises to improve openness further and submit themselves to outside scrutiny.
Many international anti-corruption and transparency bodies are already at work. In the new outfit the main judge of performance will not be other governments (though there is some of that) but citizen groups at home. Moreover, the partnership is not primarily a members’ club for countries, but more of a social network for reform-minded officials wanting to meet counterparts and experts to swap tips and expertise. Technology is helping too: the internet access and computing power that make open governance possible are now cheap and simple enough to be used widely in poorer countries.
Also important is that the new partnership is not led by rich countries. The steering committee includes places such as Mexico, which has a much praised freedom-of-information law, and Indonesia, which won plaudits for tracking aid spending after the 2004 tsunami. On top of that, voluntary outfits outnumber governments on the partnership’s committee.
Martin Tisné of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (a coalition of aid donors based in Britain), which will work in the new outfit’s monitoring arm, says that many reformers and activists have no idea how problems they are facing have been solved in other countries, while many of the international pro-openness bodies focus on just one issue or industry. Networking via the OGP should help. The evaluations will embarrass governments if they don’t meet their obligations, says John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, DC, which creates online open-government tools to track legislation, spending, lobbying and other activities.
Given the risk of censure, then, why should governments want to join? For a few, membership will be a seal of approval. In others, it is hoped, reformist officials will use the OGP’s help and the publicity it gives to spur backsliding colleagues to do better. More substantially, donors may make aid conditional on meeting the promises made. Britain’s foreign-aid agency, the Department for International Development, is working along these lines (corrected: see comment below).
Some have dismissed the new venture. Anti-American countries note that one of the masterminds is Samantha Power, a self-described “humanitarian hawk” who advises Barack Obama. Other doubters think it may be a handy way of diverting attention from shortfalls in the American administration’s own ambitious open-government plans. Some see a clash between the idealistic promotion of open government and the hounding of WikiLeaks. The launch of the OGP at a briefing where reporters were ludicrously told to identify the speakers only as “State Department Official One” and “State Department Official Two” brought justified ridicule.
Overall, however, the OGP seems to be reinvigorating America’s commitment to open government, prompting an announcement that it will join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. This ingenious scheme makes oil and gas companies publish the details of what they pay to governments, with the aim of giving citizens a chance to see how much of those payments actually end up in public coffers.
The OGP does have some drawbacks. Its launch seemed rushed, and it is not yet clear who will set the targets that government openness projects must reach. Putting lots of data online may look good but make no real difference.
Trapped in the fog
One pitfall is that measuring the impacts of open governance as clearly as Mr Svensson believes he did in Uganda is hard. A second pitfall is that transparency doesn’t always lead to accountability. In theory, knowing the size of the road budget should make people either demand that more be spent or ask why the roads are still a mess. In practice, citizens may lack a means to turn their discontent into real political pressure. Transparency projects are the “low-hanging fruit” of open governance, and hence tempting for governments to focus on, says Tiago Peixoto, research director of the e-Democracy Centre at the University of Zurich. Giving people a real say, while harder to arrange, yields bigger benefits. He cites a project in six towns in Congo, where letting people decide how budgets were spent boosted tax collection.
A third worry is that the OGP may shine more attention on the executive branches of national governments than on the local level, or on the judiciary or legislature. Open governance is still a newish idea even in advanced economies. Progress may be patchy, but at least the OGP’s non-governmental members will be able to make plenty of noise about it.
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