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In less than three weeks, the London Summit of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) will open. The agenda will range from the nuts and bolts of OGP, to more controversial debates around privacy, whistleblowing, tax transparency and defending civil society space. Rarely have these issues been more firmly in the public eye, which challenges the London Summit to prove OGP can be a relevant vehicle for genuine change and debate.
In two years OGP has grown from 8 to 60 countries. Between them they have made over 1,000 open government commitments, as part of country action plans that are co-created with civil society, renewed every two-years and independently assessed by OGP’s reporting mechanism. Country commitments vary from e-government platforms, to anti-corruption measures and opening up government data. At the core of OGP is a new relationship between civil society and governments, which challenges both to collaborate in new ways on policy-making. Rightly, as global leaders and activists come to London, the question for the open government community is "what difference will the Summit actually make"?
First, governments have been asked by the UK – the lead government co-chair of OGP – to come to London with a new open government reform commitment. This is an important opportunity for civil society and domestic government reformers in OGP’s 60 countries to be bold and ambitious.
For civil society it means advocating for a commitment that might otherwise be unattainable, or has been poorly implemented. In the UK, campaigners on tackling shell companies have targeted the OGP Summit as the moment to secure a public register of beneficial owners, rather than a private one.
In other countries, campaigners should be thinking along similar lines – identifying one truly challenging reform priority for their country and then working with their government so it can be announced in London. It is essential that these ambitious commitments are then locked down, either in new OGP action plans being presented in London or in future action plans that countries will be co-creating with civil society over the coming months. This ensures governments will be held to account for their pledges, and that OGP acts as a platform for ambition, rather than business as usual.
Second, the domestic reformers from across governments and civil society need space to learn from each other. Sharing best practice and meeting global counterparts may sound abstract next to delivering ambitious commitments, but it is critical to the effective functioning of OGP. That is why we will be profiling, from the main stage, stories from the civil servants who are delivering open government reforms on a daily basis. To date, their efforts have taken place behind the scenes and it is important to showcase how they are winning the battle to change the status quo.
Also on stage will be the civil society pioneers using transparency to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen accountability. The conversations we are encouraging between officials and civil society will mean ideas are shared and taken home after the Summit. They include the creation of five new OGP working groups on some of the most fundamental aspect of open government reform.
Third, we intend to provoke debate on some challenging issues that have been absent from many OGP conversations to date. Sessions on privacy and whistleblowing will take OGP out of its comfort zone. Tackling the reasons that some countries are cracking down on civil society will similarly ensure that OGP does not become irrelevant to the wider concerns of citizens. Open government is about more than open data and, as OGP grows, the range of issues countries choose to tackle in their action plans should evolve. It is important that the relatively low-hanging fruit of publishing datasets is built on to include more ambitious targets, which will require political leadership and cross-government reform.
The OGP’s London Summit comes at a crucial moment for the partnership. It should prove that OGP is not a talking shop, or buried in process, but a genuine vehicle for ambitious reformers to transform the way public policy is made. It should show that a different type of relationship is possible between citizens and the state, and that open government innovation truly comes from everywhere. And it should show that OGP will not retreat to its comfort zone but will encourage debate on the thorny issues that citizens want to hear their leaders address. With the engagement and participation from reformers globally, these objectives can be achieved, and we can build further momentum behind more open and responsive government.
Joe Powell is the Deputy Director of the Open Government Partnership Support Unit