The latest buzzword in town for some Governments begins with the word “Open”, such as Open Government, Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Communications, Open Solutions and what have you! As a matter of fact, the World Bank website has started a new blog category called “Open Development” which serves as the Bank's monitor in the pursuit of openness and transparency on its various initiatives. Google's office in NY likewise also participated in this endeavor, hailing the “Power of Open” throughout the globe. However, we raise these questions: What is it to Open? With Whom? How Open Is It? How Open (willingness) Are They To Open Their Information?
Normally, when we hear the word “open”, what comes to mind is something made public, that everyone is welcome to go inside and explore what's in there, something to see with our own naked eyes, something that is relevant and useful, and most of all, that it is open to everyone regardless of age, race, rich or poor or any status in life. Similarly, when we welcome expected or unexpected visitors in our respective homes, we widely open our doors so they can come in comfortably and experience for themselves the warmth and amazing things in there.
What will be briefly featured in this post is neither about opening doors to our visitors, nor about museums or parks being opened literally to the public but the so-called “Open Government Partnership” (OGP) which was recently launched in NYC by its 8 founding-member countries ( United States, the UK, Norway, Mexico, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil) and being spearheaded by the U.S.
Policy talks concerning the promotion of transparency, fighting corruption and harnessing new technologies from all sources, drew the said Government leaders to come together, sit down and discuss on the said global partnership project.
Open Government Partnership was launched primarily to bring together various sets of powerful intellectual minds from different parts of the globe, so to speak, to particularly address the aforesaid policy issues confronting Governments, in a transparent manner with the highest level of probity. As such, it is a multilateral enterprise that is expected to obtain solid and doable maximum commitments and deliverables at the highest levels of Governments, in so far as transparency and governance related matters are concerned. Based on OGP's pronouncements, the said initiative was launched on the 20th of September this year, in collaboration with the UN General Assembly. It was also on the same day that the OGP's Declaration of Principles, action plans and commitments were signed and endorsed by the said founding members.
I see nothing wrong on what our respectable leaders did. In fact, that was something to be proud of especially if your home country's leader was one of those who bravely stood, supported and strongly committed for this laudable project. But guys, haven't we heard this same old story before? Isn't this a mere duplication of previous pronouncements? We've encountered several studies and initiatives undertaken relative to the said governance-related policies (transparency, accountability, full disclosures, etc.) during the past decade. What happened to governance and corruption related strategies instituted by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank? How about the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), a comprehensive blueprint of reform, signed and globally agreed by 140 countries? How about the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) “Transparency Standards” on trade and investment which was endorsed by the said member-leaders? How about the World Economic Forum anti-corruption task force where CEOs of more than multinational corporations have agreed to a zero tolerance policy and principle? How does OGP complement with the present UN-Millennium Development Goals? Oh, I could go on and on enumerating the many related initiatives which have already been done before. But for an ordinary man, he/she would like to know what's the status of these programs, where are they now? Were there better results?
Have our respective Governments learned something from the said experiences? Have they seriously considered the real whole gamut of issues and problems besetting the world economy? Probably these are the same questions in the minds of some of the senior-level representatives of other 38 countries ( Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Latvia, Liberia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Peru, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine, and Uruguay) also present in the said OGP launching. Maybe it could have been the reason why these countries were still hesitant to “go all the way” in this endeavor, just at first glance! Maybe some of them at the back of their minds were thinking that this move could be the same pronouncements made as before which could have just been archived, without much progress and positive outcomes. Or perhaps, these countries could be those not willing and able to entertain the idea of opening their “books” to everyone, specifically those information labeled as "confidential".
While the OGP objective appears to be a rhetorical device of previous similar policy pronouncements, I thought the OGP has salient features which could be an innovation. The think-tank staff responsible on this provided a new flavor to it, placing importance on the word “open”. So far, we've heard and implemented various government partnerships with the private sector, civil society and other non-government organizations but there was no emphasis on “opening” the same to all stakeholders. With the OGP, it is envisioned that there will be freedom of information, fiscal and budget transparency, asset disclosures for public officials and empowerment of not only selected stakeholders but also ordinary citizens. The OGP serves as a platform to empower people to make their voice heard especially on major national projects.
An online forum regarding Open Data Access sponsored by the WB late last year was held which could possibly triggered the OGP launching. I was one of those who have expressed about value formation among the stakeholders, not only for government employees but also those in the private sector, specifically people's attitude towards change. From the government side, there are people out there who regard information as powerful, which is actually true. With the correct information, you can go around wherever you want to go. As they say, information makes the world go round. The more they keep to themselves certain important information, the more powerful they are. There are advantages and disadvantages of concealing information and it depends on what kind of information and to whom the same can be disseminated and communicated in a transparent and accessible manner.
I recall one time, one of my former colleagues in Government was super cautious in releasing information that even her staff inherited her ultra conservative ways. At first, it was understandable since the transactions were so large that any careless move could have adverse impact on what is being undertaken. As part of the rules, her office technical staff would have to see to it that press releases are limited to some general information, memos and letters have to be kept after use, drafts have to be properly disposed of to keep away from the wandering eyes of media people and other outside parties who may have vested interests on the subject. But at the end of the day, the said process was becoming amusing and at times bothersome and irritating to some staff as draft reports ended up being rehashed (e.g. some data are being deleted, etc.) and the staff themselves couldn't even access anymore some vital information for their use. This is true and it happened! And this could also be true in both private and public arenas, whether in developing and developed economies!
I do recognize the merits of the OGP's proposed programs and policies but whether Governments can make use of it to the fullest and soonest, the fact remains to be seen. As mentioned in my previous blog posts, there is always hope and a cure for some sicknesses (e.g. corruption, etc.) in Governments and it only takes a change of attitudes and values of the people in the workplace even if the said sickness is already embedded in the system, in their minds and hearts. This OGP initiative could help but there are no assurances, we can only hope for the best!
I just hope that this initiative is not undertaken and supported to obtain “handsome” points for political gains or for some other selfish ulterior motives. I hope too that the heads of other Governments will follow suit for the sake of better Global Government!
Guys, come on join me, let's challenge our respective Governments to participate in this endeavor!
On a lighter note, it would be interesting to know which of these countries shall submit a formal letter of intent to participate in this OGP initiative at its next summit in Brazil next year. Any guess/guesses ???