The Open Government Partnership (OGP) boasts some pretty lofty and much-needed goals. The global initiative aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. It was officially launched September 20, 2011 by eight founding governments: Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and United States.
Now that the OGP is nearly one year old, it’s a good time to analyze how it’s faring—most notably in Africa, which has a long history of secrecy in government and lack of effective public participation.
What is The Access Initiative?
The Access Initiative (TAI) is an international network of civil society organizations working to ensure that people have access to information and the ability to participate in environmental decision-making. The Access Initiative has been engaged with the Open Government Partnership with partners in Africa including the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (Uganda), the Open Democracy Advice Centre (South Africa) and the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (Ghana) to encourage Governments to make commitments on transparency and public participation in making decisions about natural resources and the environment.
The OGP in Africa
Since the OGP’s launch, 57 countries—mainly from Europe and the Americas—have joined the initiative. However, few countries in Africa actually meet eligibility requirements of the partnership, so expansion has been slow. OGP eligibility is based on governments’ demonstrated commitments to transparency in four key areas: timely publication of essential budget documents; adopting an access-to-information law guaranteeing the public’s right to government information; instituting rules requiring public disclosure of income and assets for elected and senior public officials; and openness to citizen participation in policy-making, including basic protections for civil liberties. Only six African countries currently meet the guidelines to join OGP: South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Liberia, Uganda, and Ghana.
Yet progress is being made towards open and transparent governance on the continent. With the exception of Uganda, all African countries currently eligible to join OGP have joined. Securing political commitment from these countries in OGP’s first year is remarkable.
South Africa, Tanzania, and most recently, Kenya, have already delivered their written transparency commitments, and Liberia and Ghana are set to provide draft action plans before the end of this year. The Ugandan government has yet to join the partnership, but a recent report from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa provides a strong case for why the Ugandan Government should administer open government data programs, and the country’s civil society is actively urging its government to join OGP.
What Commitments Are Being Made?
A wide range of commitments came from South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. In fact, only a few similarities exist across the three countries’ written plans:
Budgets: Notably, all three governments included commitments on transparency and budgeting. South Africa plans to standardize a framework for civil society participation in government budgetary processes . Tanzania will produce an annual citizens’ budget document in an easy-to-understand format (both in Kiswahili and English). Kenya aims to involve the public in budgetary preparation using technology channels, including open government data platforms and by publishing budgetary data in machine readable format. This format ensures data is searchable and sortable, allowing citizens to better utilize it.
Access to Information Laws: Surprisingly, South Africa did not address improving implementation and enforcement of its Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), and Kenya and Tanzania failed to address adoption and implementation of access to information laws. While the South African Government mentioned PAIA as an accomplishment, it did not commit to improve public institutions practice, public awareness of the law, or enforcement of appeals under the law, which are concerns civil society has raised for a number of years. In fact, the Government is currently seeking to finalize the Protection of State Information bill, or “the Secrecy Bill,” a move that’s considered extremely controversial internationally. Kenya’s action plan mentioned its commitment to passing a good Access to Information law, but failed to include any commitments on implementation. Tanzania’s action plan mentions an access to information law, but it only commits to “study global best practice of freedom of information laws in order to generate inputs for preparation of a potential freedom of information Bill,” a fairly weak commitment.
Public Participation: All submitted action plans call for improving citizens’ participation in governance. South Africa committed to develop a Citizen Participation guideline for Public Sector departments, as well as formalize partnerships with civil society organizations in nine provinces to ensure “service rights.” The country will also run a “Know Your Service Rights and Responsibilities” campaign. Tanzania agreed to improve its Citizens’ Website, aiming to achieve wider citizen participation in government by establishing an online platform for citizens to send comments by phone, email, and other means and receive feedback. Kenya committed to improve government service delivery by engaging the public in defining County and Constituency Electoral boundaries to bring government closer to citizens. Public participation will be made inclusive by using web, mobile, radio, TV, and public hearings.
Innovation: There were also some innovative commitments involving technology. In fact, all governments committed to develop portals or improve websites to engage citizenry. South Africa’s commitment to assess the feasibility of developing a publicly accessible environmental management information portal stands out as one of the most forward-thinking initiatives. The Tanzanian Government also committed to explore establishing “Nifanyeje?‟, a website where citizens can get practical information on how to receive Government services (like get a university scholarship, sign up for water or electricity services, or obtain a driver’s license). The Kenyan Government, which already has an open government data portal, committed to improve the platform and publish more data on health, education, water, and other essential services, as well as establish a public complaints portal.
The fact that a few African nations have already joined the OGP is a solid step in the right direction. OGP has already proven itself to be an avenue for the delivery of new, exciting commitments on transparency and public participation in Africa.
However, there’s still a long road ahead. The fact that few African countries are currently eligible to join OGP is most concerning. Zambia, Rwanda, Morocco, and Tunisia have expressed an interest in joining, but more will need to be done to support these countries gaining eligibility.
In the meantime, making OGP a forum for innovation will require consistent public participation in creating commitments as well as in monitoring their implementation. This process will be bolstered by instituting an independent monitoring and review mechanism for OGP. The mechanism, which is currently being established, will independently assess whether governments are meeting their commitments.
Whether OGP will provide a long-term avenue for transparency and accountability in a comprehensive and holistic manner in African countries—and others, for that matter—is yet to be determined. But one thing is clear: After one year, OGP is off to a good start in Africa.