A lot has been said already about the Open Government Partnership: it is the thing of the moment, riding on the wave of the digital age and proliferation of smart phones.
But let us not forget the goals the Open Government Partnership strives to achieve by concrete commitments from governments to:
- Promote transparency
- Empower citizens
- Address corruption
- Harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
So this got me thinking: what makes the Open Government Partnership different than existing multilateral initiatives adopted in the attempt to curb corruption?
In a previous life, I spent a lot of time focusing on United Nations Convention Against Corruption, hailed as the first globally binding instrument in the fight against corruption.
In 2003, when the text was negotiated, it was novel in the sense that it provided legal grounds for asset recovery and international cooperation to make recovery of stolen assets to the country of origin possible. The massive number of signatories (140) and State Parties (160 as of 12 March, 2012) does warrant admiration.
However, it must be noted that the Convention drafters managed to agree on the lowest common denominator, in addition to a number of provisions calling on states to merely consider certain actions in prevention and criminalization of corruption.
When it comes to enforcement, peer-based oversight and compliance mechanism was approved four years after the Convention’s entry into force. The investment of time and resources in order to complete compliance cycle in just one country is long, and the process is heavy, resulting in a country report with observations on implementation, successes and good practices showcased, uncovered challenges and technical assistance needs. No recommendations, mandatory or optional.
In a similar vein, the Open Government Partnership has been criticized for having literally no monitoring structure. Monitoring of country commitments is left to the countries themselves, or rather their civil societies.
Probably every lawyer in the room would argue that the lack of a stringent compliance mechanism will subdue the end results of the initiative.
Enforcement, in the strictest sense, does require some structure, discipline, someone probing, investigating and issuing a verdict on openness in this case.
Yes, that is one way of looking at things, but that is not what the Open Government Partnership is about. Two facts do it for me:
The Open Government Partnership strives to put citizens in the spotlight when discussing and firming up commitments.
Moreover, the freedom of access to information is backed by the open data movement and the release of government-collected data in machine-readable, usable formats. And that is how the overarching goal is achieved: (new) technologies strengthen governance and make people’s lives better.
In just one day, we witnessed the launch of the Open Government Platform, as a collaborative effort between US and India, opening up company data in Norway and Belgium, whereas the UK posted data online on the medical practices of some 8,000 general practitioners to assist patients in their choice of medical care provider. UK citizens are also able to monitor crime trends in their communities, whereas higher education in the US will be subject to big data posting to reduce the drop-out rate by beefing up the academic decisions with real-time data.
To sum up, it is all about citizens making an informed choice and having a say in the service delivery.
The instant circulation of information, backed by the internet as the home of free knowledge, effectively replaces traditional monitoring of enforcement.
Such is the speed with which information travels around the globe that it makes formal oversight exercises obsolete. Blogs, news portals, Twitter and other social media provide the means for the ultimate “name and shame,” or “name and acclaim” game where the goal is to be the champion of transparency. Not to mention that there is a lot of peer pressure and a good dose of competition. We can debate whether a 1,000 respondents to a survey is a sound reflection of the state of health reform in the UK, but the information that citizens are not happy is already in the public domain and it is forcing corrective action.
So let’s see where the era of open government takes us. And if Facebook disappears in five years, making room for mobile technology to take over, then the instant sharing of information through mobile apps will be the ultimate monitor of progress in the race for transparency and better service delivery. Would you agree?
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