Opening governance with a new generation in Liberia

Blog |December 5, 2016 |Blair Glencorse and Heather Gilberds

This week, as the Open Government Partnership holds its 2016 summit in Paris, there will be many reflections on how to improve the ways that governments interact with citizens, and how to ensure that citizen voices and priorities are incorporated in policy-making.

Under President Sirleaf, the Government of Liberia has worked to open up government and put in place organisations and mechanisms to support accountability. As part of the work funded by our Making All Voices Count research and learning grant, the Accountability Lab is examining the dynamics of these changes to better understand the incentives, impact and progress of the accountability agenda.

We’ve been looking specifically at how youth-led movements for accountability and social change can help the Government of Liberia realise its open government ambitions.

Positive, government-driven change

Liberia was the first country in West Africa to pass a Freedom of Information law and the first African country to comply with Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative rules governing national resource management. President Sirleaf’s administration has created or strengthened organisations ranging from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission to a Public Procurement and Concessions Commission and a General Auditing Commission.

More recently, the government’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership and its implementation of an Open Budget Initiative further indicate a shift towards open governance. Civil society organisations across the country have also been working hard to monitor government commitments to transparency, build a culture of integrity and hold people in power to account.

Opening governance is partially about setting up structures like these to enhance transparency and accountability, but is also critically about process: shifting government–citizen dynamics so that citizens are better informed about what government is doing to serve them.

Equally, governments must engage in evidence-informed decision-making to set policies that enhance the democratic process. In a practical sense, this means that open government is not just about structures and institutions, but is crucially about engagement, civic advocacy and building trust between power-holders and citizens through a shared commitment to a set of mutual values.

What’s needed for young citizens to get behind open governance commitments?

During our research, we’ve surveyed thousands of citizens across Liberia and conducted numerous focus groups with citizens – women’s groups, media, youth, communities, civil society advocates and more. We’ve spoken to young people throughout the country about what needs to change in their communities, and how they can help foster the government’s commitments to promoting transparency and open governance.

Some preliminary themes are emerging from the work that are relevant to bear in mind as Liberia sends a delegation to the OGP summit:

First, it’s about making change real. Talking about open governance and transparency with young people in Liberia generally leads to one question: how will this make my life better? This is understandable: the poverty and inequality here are stark. To engage youth in this movement, we need to find ways to communicate how transparency works for issues they care about. For this audience, it is less about open budgets and fiscal transparency and much more about clear processes for registration at colleges or transparent hiring for government jobs.

Second, progress is not through individual ideas, but collective action. There are plenty of young people with great ideas for open governance in Liberia, as there are everywhere – but these ideas often do not amount to more than the sum of their parts. Civil society is often competitive rather than collaborative, and information is guarded rather than opened up. This is precisely the kind of behavior that undermines transparency. We need to focus on ways to create shared incentives – for example, through joint applications for resources or co-working and collaboration spaces.

Third, it is about changing the system, not working within it. Youth organisations in Liberia can quickly get pulled into the aid contracting business, which leads to lots of meetings and free lunches but not always much change. It has also bred deep dependency which has undermined agency on governance issues. The Lab is trying to support organisations – like the Citizens’ Bureau and the Liberia Film Institute – that are really working to move away from these dynamics through a focus on accountability, community engagement and sustainability.

Finally, it is clear that opening governance requires an ecosystem approach. Support for civil society is critically important, but the linkages between individual projects around voice or accountability and larger developmental issues are often missing. Other stakeholders within government (like the PYPP program), the private sector (progressive firms like Liberty and Justice) and media (creative news organisations like Bush Chicken, whom we support) can help to shape more coherent approaches if they are brought into these conversations.

The OGP provides a fantastic framework for all of these processes to take place, and to make open government not just the preserve of policy and transparency nerds like us, but a meaningful way to improve the lives of millions of Liberians.

With elections in Liberia around the corner, the progress made toward greater accountability is by no means safe. Now is the time for young people to step up and secure it.

About the author

Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab and Heather Gilberds is a PhD candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a research consultant with the Accountability Lab. Follow the Lab @accountlab.