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OGP Summit ends with backslapping, but the real achievement was providing space for dissenters

Blog | October 30, 2015 | Carol Morgan

Today more than 2500 people from across the world will get on planes and trains back home after coming to Mexico for three days of discussions on open government.

Conferences like these can be tedious (which it was at times) and can also highlight the divide between the people who set the agenda and the people who work to deliver it. However, where the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit 2015 did deliver was in making sure that critical voices were heard – loud and clear – by people who are shaping how huge amounts of political and financial support are being framed.

Photo credit: Open Government Partnership

Photo credit: Open Government Partnership

Both from the OGP and government representatives on the main stage, and from rooms around the beautiful setting of the Palacio de Mineria, there was a lot of frustration at the summit - and recurring questions on action vs impact.

  • How can an organisation where membership is voluntary get tough with governments who not only don't meet their commitments, but who actually regress? The Omidyar Network’s Martin Tisné pointed out that since 2013 more than one third of countries signed up to OGP have passed legislation restricting spaces for civil society.
  • Is a network like OGP really equipped to help combat the rising tide of distrust and alienation between citizens and the governments that are supposed to serve them? Most certainly, the OGP’s difficulty in challenging institutionalised corruption was never far from the agenda, but it was tempered with the understanding that tackling corruption means long-term work on changing mindsets and culture even more than changing systems and processes.
  • How much progress have we actually made towards inclusive governance, given that, according to the Carter Centre, out of the 60+ action plans presented at the conference, only two explicitly had targets around gender?  If you think open governance work is gender neutral, think again. The Carter Centre’s Laura Neuman quoted many examples of how women are still excluded from good governance initiatives, including a Liberian official’s response to accusations that women are ignored or mal-treated when making Freedom of Information requests under its new FoI law: “Women don’t need information, they need a husband.”

Providing legitimate space for argument and genuine opportunities for people to influence how OGP is run was the highlight of the summit.

The OGP is, of course, still an elite. Not many organisations can afford to send people to Mexico. Roughly, it cost us $3000 to bring one person from Kenya or Indonesia to Mexico for three days. In our view, this is expensive, but worth it to make sure that policy makers are confronted with voices from communities who have never heard of, and don’t care about, abstract OGP principles, and are simply looking for an improvement in their day-to-day lives.

As the OGP chairmanship was transferred to South Africa, it was heartening to hear a dissenting voice coming from South Africa itself.

In the opening panel, the UK’s Lord Maude espoused the value of social media and open data in directly connecting governments to citizens. In the closing panel, Ayanda Dlodlo from the South African government highlighted something different – the need for inclusion.

Photo credit: @smawowa

Photo credit: @smawowa

On the main stage, and throughout the conference Ayanda talked about how OGP must take steps to ensure it does not exclude the many millions around the world who aren’t connected to the internet and won’t be tweeting their parliamentarian, or accessing open governance portals. She talked about engaging those who are discouraged from speaking up in public or who don’t feel it will make a difference. Amidst all the discussions of open data, hers was one of the many critical voices, and OGP was better for it.

There were of course key issues to which there could be no hard and fast answer – most notably the fight against corruption and governments’ clampdown on dissenting voices.

The summit was not a runaway success: but it was successful in not shying away from its failures, and publicly asking for help from civil society, from NGOs, from its supporters and its critics.

That, at least, is a example to OGP government partners of what it means to be open.


About the author

Carol Morgan is Head of Communications at Making All Voices Count
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