Stirring words from British Prime Minister David Cameron last week as the UK played host to the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit 2013 in London:
“Open government isn’t some kind of optional add-on or a ‘nice to have’ but it is absolutely fundamental to a nation’s success in the 21st Century.”
Certainly Cameron’s speech was long on high minded rhetoric, casting a roving eye across an international stage and scoring the maximum points in the ‘global statesman’ role all country leaders aspire to in the end.
As such there was a lot of ‘good country, bad country’ examples to be made, such as :
“The truth is this – closed governments breed poverty.
“Look at Cuba and look at the United States – which way do the boats go?
“Look at Zimbabwe and South Africa - people crawling on their hands and knees to go from one to the other.
“Look at the people who so tragically have lost their lives crossing from the tip of Africa to Europe.”
And for good measure, North and South Korea stand as the perfect political metaphor:
“One is an open, vibrant market economy – and that is underpinned by an open, vibrant successful democracy a place where people have a say in the future of their nation.
“The other of course is a closed, backward economy – and that is underpinned by a closed, corrupt, secretive dictatorship decisions taken behind closed doors - mostly by the grandsons of those who were taking them seventy years ago.”
(This last point incidentally from the leader of a country whose upper legislative house, the House of Lords, in 2013 still contains hereditary peers and unelected members of the Church establishment, taking decisions as their forebears did 70 years ago - and for centuries beforehand!)
Actions speak louder
Still, basic argument made Prime Minister and taken on board. Now, how does this translate into action?
Well that’s where the OGP comes in.
The UK was one of 8 founding members of the OGP which was launched formally in September 2011 with the remaining founding partners being Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa and the United States.
Since then a further 53 governments have signed up which means that - there is a good chance to make a difference on a major scale.
OGP aims to secure firm commitments from governments to promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption and harness new technologies to make government more open, effective and accountable. To join OGP, member states must:
- embrace a high-level Open Government Declaration.
- deliver a country action plan developed with public consultation.
- commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.
The UK, as OGP lead co-chair this year, set 5 priorities for last week’s summit in London :
- Open data or “opening up government data to boost entrepreneurship, economic growth and accountability”.
- Government integrity or “fighting corruption and strengthening democracy through transparent government”.
- Fiscal transparency or :making sure that taxpayers can follow the money”.
- Empowering citizens or “transforming the relationship between citizens and governments”.
- Natural resource transparency or “making sure that natural resources are used for public benefit, not to line the pockets of corrupt elites”.
By the end of the summit, various countries had made 37 commitments in total involving a number of key actions.
For example, Azerbaijan stated it will increase the number of electronic services and expand the geography of ‘ASAN-Service” Centers (Public Service Halls)’, Romania plans to introduce ‘open contracting’ in the public sector while the UK is to build a central registry of “company beneficial ownership information”.
Each commitment varies according to the national and political backdrop of each country and as such is the most appropriate course of action for that state at any given time.
So along with a bit of corporate tax evader bashing - which goes down awfully well with the British electorate as they Google what to buy later on Amazon while sipping a Starbucks latte - Cameron told the Summit that the central registry is important as:
“We need to know who really owns and controls our companies. Not just who owns them legally, but who really benefits financially from their existence.”
Opening and closing
The UK Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude - who’s in charge of Britain’s open government agenda told the Summit:
“Transparency is an idea whose time has come – and the clock cannot be turned back. The unstoppable momentum building behind open government at home and abroad is accelerating the pace of change, and we are using it to drive innovation and growth, improvements in public services and greater accountability in public and corporate organisations.”
Transparency and openness are of course politically absolutely the correct postures to strike, even as the antics of the NSA in the US have caused many to ask increasingly difficult questions about the nature of privacy in a digitally-opened up world.
There’s also an unfortunate irony that while the London summit was issuing forth proud statements about openness and transparency, in a back room of the House of Commons, UK legislators were stitching up a behind-closed-doors deal to shackle the freedom of the UK press on an unprecedented scale.
Well intentioned the OGP actions undoubtedly are, but, purely from a timing point of view, the words about openness from the Summit last week sat uncomfortably alongside attempts by the political establishment to close down key freedoms of the UK media on a scale that would not be tolerated in the US or in many other democracies in the OGP.
But that said, we can only applaud the work of the OGP to date and acknowledge the work done by Maude and his team during the UK’s turn in the chair this year.
The underlying principles of the work of the Partnership are hugely important in a digital democracy and allowing nation states to implement, at their own pace, their own actions and strategies within a loose framework of high level common policies is a highly appropriate approach to take.
(Compare and contrast with ‘lowest common denominator’ standardization mentality from Brussels…)