The Open Government Partnership

The parting of the red tape:
Is it just another global talking-shop — or a fresh approach to shaking out government secrecy?

The Economist  Oct 8th 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. And 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.

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.

Some may see a clash between the idealistic promotion of open government and the hounding of WikiLeaks, not to mention governments’ distaste and denial of downgrading by the Bond Rating Agencies. But a real commitment to real Open and Accountable Government must learn not only to live with, but to respect and respond to outside criticism.

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