Why open governments are the future

By Mukelani Dimba

By opening up government to public input and oversight, you get government that is more effective, efficient, and credible.

Successful partnerships are rarely born out of sympathy or generosity of spirit. They are born out of necessity: when faced with a challenge or opportunity we cannot fully embrace by ourselves, we seek the support of others.

As part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), 76 countries and 20 local governments are choosing to partner with civil society and citizens in designing and delivering policies and public services. They are doing so in part because they believe they should, but mostly because they are learning that such partnerships can pay dividends.

By opening up government to public input and oversight, you get government that is more effective, efficient, and credible. All over the world, there are examples of open government partnerships that have created meaningful impact.

Why open up?

In the Philippines, the government disclosed spending data on major expenditure programmes, inviting communities to check whether new roads, teachers and textbooks they had been allocated were showing up. Citizens identified several ‘ghost roads’ that had vanished along the treacherous journey from central to local government purse, saving an estimated US$300,000 for each. The Commission on Audit is now streamlining social audits across multiple programmes to better hold local governments to account.

In Ukraine, reformers from government, civil society, and the private sector introduced the open contracting ProZorro platform, making public purchasing data easily searchable online. This significantly increased the number of bidders on tenders, and resulted in savings of US$250 million in just two years.

Feedback collected through Mongolia’s “Check My Services” app has helped reduce waiting times in hospitals, repaired roads, and improved trash collection services. Ivory Coast is piloting participatory budgeting in five communes, with a new youth employment centre and water facilities now being put in place. And Macedonia’s Moj Vozduh (“My Air”) mobile app engaged citizens on pollution, prompting government action to improve ambient air quality.

These are real results, designed and delivered by governments partnering with citizens. The above examples show that it pays to open government - and how costly it can be not to. When public funds are siphoned off to line private pockets, citizens get fewer roads, schools, or doctors than they deserve or pay for.

Open government principles - transparency, participation, accountability - can help in disarming such abuses. Governments that share information and draw on the eyes, ears, and skills of citizens are not only better positioned to track and trace public funds, they are also better equipped to tailor the services they offer to the needs and opportunities of all.

What lies ahead

This is not new, of course. It’s a tried and tested recipe: when it comes to designing, delivering, and monitoring the services we use on a daily basis, there is no such thing as too many cooks.

However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Not all OGP members are necessarily open government champions. Some are reluctant to move beyond basic data dumps; some flatter to deceive.

When the Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011, President Obama spearheaded a group of eight founding governments and nine civil society leaders who saw a unique opportunity to place people at the heart of government. By 2017, political rights and civil liberties had deteriorated to their lowest point in the past decade - in young democracies, but also in established ones.

With populism on the rise and trust in government in decline, reformers on both sides find it harder to cement the open government principles they committed to embrace, let alone carve out space for new ones.

But hope springs eternal. This week, OGP meets in Tbilisi, Georgia, for its fifth Global Summit. Thousands of reformers from around the world will convene to discuss the future of open government and redefine the relationship between governments and the citizens they serve.

Some celebration is in order, but our gaze will be firmly fixed on the future. We will hear from government reformers committing to new transparency laws; gender activists; civil society leaders protecting the right to be heard; and journalists using public information to track money laundering.

The power of many

At the heart of OGP lies a firm belief that the challenges before us today are too vast for any one government or group of people to tackle by themselves. We need governments and civil society to co-create not only the right responses, but also their effective implementation and monitoring.

The fifth OGP summit in Tbilisi is a good moment to reflect on how far we have come in building strong partnerships between governments and civil society in advancing the principles of open governance. It is a moment to inspire by showcasing innovations that have delivered high impact.

However, and most importantly, it should be a moment for all partners to embrace the OGP platform to fundamentally change how we design and deliver essential public services for those most in need of government support - for their survival and dignity.

Mukelani Dimba is Co-Chair of the OGP Civil Society Steering Committee, Open Government Partnership.