What Change Means: the OGP in Africa

Posted in Blog

- By Gabriella Razzano

Wednesday 4 May 2016, marked the first day of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit - kicked off with an afternoon Civil Society Meeting. The opening day has brought to the fore probably one of the most pertinent questions underlying the value of the OGP, but also of the open government and transparency agenda broadly: what is real change?

Sanjay Pradhan has just taken over as the CEO of the OGP. He kicked off his tenure with a great speech to the civil society organisations present, highlighting that the OGP is at a critical point of its development. After five years of being in place, OGP should no longer measure its success by the “number” of countries that join. In the next five years, OGP is going to have to start measuring its worth in terms of the difference it makes to people’s lives.

This can be contextualised through a very practical idea – National Action Plans (NAPs) need to not only be ambitious, but they need to be implemented. Commitments need to not just be about proactive release of information, they need to be about closing the “feedback loop” so that civil society can actually hold government to account. We have to move to an era of substance over form.

This is a very real conversation in the transparency world. Yu & Robinsons spoke eloquently of how “open government data” is often a problematic term, poorly used. In fact, open government should not be conflated with open government data. Open government is more than just being open about information; it is also about being open about information that forwards accountability. Sometimes, when a government is merely being open with data, this data is not necessarily enough to hold the state to account.

This is an important conversation to have, particularly on the African continent. As Pradhan noted, the African continent on average has the highest percentage of ambitious commitments, yet, worryingly, the lowest percentage of full implementation.

What does this mean for OGP? ODAC have just completed an examination on the feasibility of the OGP in Malawi (available here), as Malawi just submitted its first National Action Plan in April 2016, after joining in 2013. Our research discussed many of the problems that might exist in trying to implement the OGP in Malawi, but a finer point that emerged was this: if OGP is to do what it hopes to do, and that is create real open government, it needs to do so in a variety of contexts. And in Malawi, there is an opportunity for real change if OGP can extend its hand in peer learning, instead of being overly focused on how the commitments might be technically framed.

Real change will be defined by the contexts in which OGP takes shape. It will be different things for different countries, but the first step to getting there will be for civil society and government to keep their eye on the prize: substance over form.