We face five profound crises today, warns Sanjay Pradhan, Chief Executive Officer of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). A catastrophic pandemic; the global economic crisis; the perennial threat of climate change; a crisis of inequality; and a crisis on democracy.

Yet, “courageous reformers and activists” are working to achieve a “vibrant, greener and inclusive democracy”, he says. The OGP’s member states have been implementing reforms for financial transparency, empowering citizens to shape policies, and more.

GovInsider caught up with Pradhan to discuss the role of open government in battling Covid-19, disinformation, and authoritarianism.

Open government, open data

2021 is the OGP’s 10th anniversary. It was founded back in 2011 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Since then, 78 countries and a growing number of local governments have joined the partnership.

This year, it hopes to co-create a record 100 action plans and “leverage the political momentum” from the Biden administration and global democracy forums, Pradhan says.

As governments tackle Covid-19, “open response” has never been more necessary. When citizens can access information, they can better understand the challenge and comply with “reasonable limitations on their freedom”, Pradhan says.

Australia and New Zealand, for instance, released models that showed the likelihood of intensive care units being overwhelmed in different scenarios. That helped citizens gain a better understanding of the severity, and cooperate with strict measures to contain the virus.

“In contrast, in China, Iran and the US, initial delay in disclosure of threats to citizens jeopardised lives,” he adds.

Some countries have responded promptly to citizen feedback and gained public trust. South Korea updated its contact tracing practices shortly after the Korean National Human Rights Commission recommended changes to better protect citizen privacy. “That responsiveness helped protect citizen trust that had been so carefully built,” he says.

Governments across the world have also mobilised a “staggering US $12 trillion” in stimulus packages to tackle the economic fallout of Covid-19. “But with so much money moving so fast, there is a high risk of corruption, capture and waste,” Pradhan says.

“We need open contracts, open budgets, open aid” to build trust and ensure these massive packages achieve their intended goals, he explains.

Paraguay’s mapa inversiones and South Africa’s Vulekamali platforms make data on Covid-19 budgets and contracts publicly available. These governments engaged citizens, marginalised communities, women, and young people for feedback.

The UK and Nigeria have also made company ownership transparent. Citizens can be sure that Covid-19 contracts are not captured by the politically connected, he adds.

Empowering citizens

“Many governments have used the pandemic to expand state surveillance and arbitrarily restrict civic freedoms that were already under attack,” Pradhan says. Some governments have censored media reports on Covid-19, curtailed rights to information, and attacked oversight institutions, he adds.

The OGP is calling on its member states to roll back these measures to protect civic and media freedoms. Mexico has committed to multi-stakeholder supervision over the state’s digital surveillance, after 2017 reports revealed government-owned surveillance software was used to spy on prominent journalists and activists.

Image by OGP

To build stronger democracies, governments must sustain collaborations with citizens, Pradhan says. In Madrid, Paris and Uruguay, governments have encouraged citizen participation in budgeting, so citizens can choose to fund projects that meet their needs.

Italy’s Open Coescione and Nigeria’s Eyes and Ears programmes disclose information about ongoing projects, empowering citizens to monitor progress and provide feedback.

The OGP calls on all of its members to scale up such approaches to ensure responsive and accountable governance.

Tackling the infodemic

Misinformation has significantly harmed the global Covid-19 response, Pradhan says. A collaborative approach, involving governments, civil society, and the media is required.

Some governments “have themselves been the source of disinformation, downplaying the risks of the pandemic,” or embracing “heavy-handed” measures to restrict the flow of information. “Our tracking shows that nearly one in five OGP countries have suspended or altered their right to information frameworks,” he adds.

Transparent information from governments will build public confidence and empower citizens to take mitigating actions, he says.

Buenos Aires, for example, has created a Whatsapp bot that can answer questions from citizens about Covid-19 prevention, symptoms, and services. All data sets that were used to inform pandemic decision-making have also been released.

A free and independent media is also especially important, he says. The OGP is “seeing a very worrying trend” of governments attacking “legitimate reporting, especially where it is critical of those in power and the elite”, under the guise of fighting fake news.

Its tracker revealed that limitations on media reporting of Covid-19 were implemented in ten member states, Pradhan adds.

It’s crucial for governments to strengthen the environment for independent media, he says. Tunisia is a “good example”. The government has allocated public funds for independent media to continue operating during the pandemic, and created an independent press council – the first in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Social media platforms must also be held accountable for disinformation, he says. These companies can work with other stakeholders to modify algorithms to promote trustworthy content or add labels to untruthful content.

“The stakes are high. Having access to accurate information during the pandemic will save lives; misinformation jeopardises lives,” Pradhan says. Governments, citizens, and the media, must contribute to ensure communities can take appropriate actions to save lives.

Fighting systemic inequalities

One of the OGP’s priorities this year is to rectify societal inequities revealed during Covid-19 and cases of racism, Pradhan says. “We must fight this through our core values of inclusion, justice and human rights.”

Covid-19 responses need to be inclusive and open to ensure resources reach the most needy, not the most powerful, he adds. Civil society groups in the Philippines government have called for transparency and oversight in the government’s US$4 billion of safety nets to ensure it actually reaches 18 million vulnerable households.

Countries must also include women and historically marginalised groups, he says. Afghanistan is working with the OGP to advance its national women’s empowerment plan, while North Macedonia is improving access to justice for its minority Roma community.

A multitude of challenges lie ahead as the OGP celebrates its 10th anniversary – but it will keep pressing on to partner countries and shape a better world beyond Covid-19.