Filed under: Anticorruption Governance Social inclusion Development 2.0

At the 15th International Anticorruption Conference (IACC), the open government partnership (OGP) and open data were among the hottest topics; mapping, crowdsourcing, new technologies and practical solutions for open data like open contracting were presented and discussed as “game changers:” powerful tools for engaging citizens and relevant stakeholders in the fight against corruption.

I had the pleasure of sitting in a panel on the OGP with activists and practitioners of the caliber of Aruna Roy and Daniel Kaufmann; the aim of our session was to showcase the successes of the OGP in promoting transparency and civic participation, fighting corruption, and harnessing technology to improve governance.

The hall was crowded with people of all ages and walks of life. It was particularly motivating and interesting to hear from Ms. Roy about her work in India at the grassroots level for access to information and from Mr Kaufmann about the tools and techniques for open government.

But while I am convinced that the OGP can have a major impact on the quality and effectiveness of public services, following the steps of my colleague Marija in the Guardian, I decided to play the devil’s advocate and point to some of the challenges ahead for the Partnership, particularly in countries with high levels of corruption. Below is a quick recap of the key points I raised.

Implementation gaps

Countries in Eastern Europe (where I work) have been exposed for several years to external pressure for the development and implementation of anti corruption measures; transparency, accountability, freedom of information and even open data are not exactly innovative concepts and the principles upon which they are grounded are shared by the international community, by civil society and (at least in principle) by governments.

There is quite a difference, though, between declaring principles and intention and implementing them seriously. As showed by the Global Integrity Report 2011, countries in the region present large implementation gaps when it comes to anti corruption measures. As stated in the report:

“Large implementation gaps are often found where high-level political will for governance reform is weaker, particularly in aid-dependent countries where governments adopt international best practices at the behest of foreign donors but then fail to fully implement them in practice.”

A case of isomorphic mimicry in action, as Lant Pritchett would put it. One can look at the new European Union (EU) member states to see a clear example of how countries struggle to implement the anti corruption regulatory framework.

As explained by Agens Batory from the Central European University in her paper (pdf) on the failure of anticorruption laws, a complex set of causes is at the root of the problem but political will is often the main stumbling block.

It appears that governments in the region have introduced reforms within the institutional and regulatory framework without a thorough analysis of implementation needs in terms of coordination of the various policies, allocation of financial and human resources, as well as monitoring and evaluation.

The consequences are visible. Only recently the EU’s commission decided to block the bulk of future EU structural funding for Romania under three of its four programmes because of “serious deficiencies” in Romania’s management and control systems.

The OGP is supported by a strong civil society movement. Will this be enough to ensure success of the initiative?

OGP based technological solutions (which are the most popular commitments under the OGP, as described by Global Integrity) run the risk of being perceived as quick fixes to complex problems and introduced without the necessary endorsement and capacity of the public administration or the will to actually make them work.

OGP activities are unfortunately going to face the same resistance and implementation deficiencies experienced by other similar anti corruption measures that preceded them.

Incentive structures

In highly corrupt societies, powerful incentive structures support the corrupt systems and protect corrupt officials.

In other words, those that benefit directly or indirectly from corruption obstruct the reform processes or “play along,” pretending to introduce reforms and new tools while undermining their effectiveness.

Chances are, this is likely to happen for OGP activities as well. In addition as mentioned by Simon Burall in his recent blog post technology isn’t neutral, and is just as likely to be used by non-progressive forces against the interests of citizens at the bottom of the pile.

According to a study commissioned by Norad:

“Fighting corruption in societies where particularism is the norm is similar to inducing a regime change: this requires a broad basis of participation to succeed and it is highly unrealistic to expect this to happen in such a short interval of time and with non-political instrument.”

To be successful, the OGP needs a critical mass of citizens supporting it and getting engaged, as mentioned by my colleague Marija Novkovic, in her blog: people’s interest and engagement are not to be taken for granted.

Civil society organizations have a major role to play in raising awareness and capacity of the people for using the tools for transparency and openness of the public administration developed under the framework of the OGP.

Transparency International is certainly doing groundbreaking work in the countries of the region in this perspective.

One of the major concerns, though, regards the capacity of the NGOs to connect with the local communities, with people living in poverty and disadvantaged groups and to let them know how they can use these tools effectively.

Colleagues in UNDP in Ukraine, for example, highlighted the fact that the most effective NGOs are located and capable to operate in Kiev and in other major cities, but reaching out to people in rural areas and in some of the region has proven a lot more complicated. The recent Open Ideas for Ukraine hackathon was meant to partially address this gap.

Chronic poor governance

For many countries in the region, citizens suffer under dysfunctional public institutions and services. Major problems are related to structural deficiencies, like the great number of public servants, lack of coordination and duplication of functions, low levels of salaries. Without far reaching reforms, will open government tools function correctly?

A report published by the World Bank, Realizing the Vision of Open Government Data, says that the open data movement assumes that governments will be willing to mandate the release of public sector information and that they have the capacity to implement this initiative. However, this approach fails to consider the influences of patronage networks, corruption and low quality civil service capabilities that characterize many developing countries.

So while the OGP has gained some traction, there’s plenty of work ahead. In my next blog post, I will discuss how UNDP is planning to address these challenges to support the implementation of the OGP.