Friday, November 8, 2013


Silvana Fumega

During the last week of October, the Open Government Partnership welcomed academics, advocates, and government officials to its summit meeting in London, to discuss the current situation - and the next steps - in the 62 countries that are now involved in this initiative[1].

The passage of a week presents a perfect time to recount and reflect on all the activities of #OGP13[2].

To start the week, some of the members of the #ODDC[3] projects, including myself, met to exchange lessons learned and challenges faced in each of their own projects. Academics from Asia and Latin America explained the different stages of their projects and discussed issues with specialists such as Toby Mendel, Maurice McNaughton and Tim Davies.

During the afternoon, government officials and transparency advocates from Latin America joined with regional specialists from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IADB, and IDRC for a preparatory meeting organized by the London School of Economics, OGP Civil Society Hub and World Bank Institute. This focused on the challenges the region is facing in terms of open government. All member countries reported different types of involvement (information, consultation and participation) in reference to the development of their national action plans[4] as part of their OGP membership.

On Wednesday, members of civil society from around the world met to discuss the challenges encountered in trying to hold governments accountable for their actions and, in particular, their commitments to the OGP process. (See tweets using the #CSOday hashtag). During the last part of the afternoon, the preliminary meetings of each of the OGP working groups took place.[5]

Finally, last Thursday, the formal summit meeting was officially launched by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. He made a welcome commitment to publishing a registry of beneficial ownership, which enables people trying to trace which companies really own what; the secrecy around company ownership has been found to facilitate tax evasion, corruption and money laundering, so it is easy to see how this concrete action should contribute to better governance. Two days full of discussions and presentations, including the launches of 5 working groups, followed that first plenary session.

If someone looked at the timetable of the whole week, they might think it was a festival of transparency and dialogue. But, was it really? Since it is impossible for me to mention all the interesting discussions and presentations[6] during #OGP13 week, I will simply highlight some of the messages and ideas that kept resurfacing in different moments of the week.

1) Participants highlighted the need for joint working spaces between civil society and government, such as those created at OGP events, to serve not only the formulation of the national action plans, but also to monitor compliance with the commitments, and the results generated from compliance. Co-evaluation, as well as co-creation.
2)   The importance of pushing for more ambitious national action plans arose frequently. Too often governments have not committed to actions that will really challenge them. These commitments are also frequently too disconnected from actions that will really help people in their everyday lives. ‘Real commitments for real people’ was the message civil society groups kept pushing to governments.
3)   The OGP summits provide an international platform for governments and CSOs to exhibit their achievements and how they may have worked together, which can also serve to inspire others towards further improvement – a ‘race to the top’. The summits are a unique opportunity for civil society and the governments to discuss issues in a condition of parity with each other. The international exposure helps governments and civil society to advance the agenda, but the parity aimed for at the summit meetings does not necessarily translate into local processes after participants return home. The summits are a place for dialogue, and maybe that is the best the OGP itself can enable, with the rest depending on the actors involved.
4)    It was mentioned repeatedly that the requirements countries must meet to join the OGP are so vague and low that countries with low levels of commitment to transparency are able to join in pursuit of a “transparency” seal of approval. This is particularly a concern in relation to low and middle-income countries seeking to put a ‘tick’ in the checkboxes of donor organisations.
5)    In terms of datasets made ‘open’ by governments, there is a clear need to set standards to enable measurement of the initiatives and to produce a clear comparative assessment of different countries.
6)    It is also necessary for governments to commit to the disclosure of more politically important and useful data. To achieve such disclosures, it was clear to all participants that it is necessary to enact legislation on the topic. There was discussion as to whether such legislation should be part of an update of the Right to Information (or Freedom of Information) legislation already in place in many countries, or if the approach of enacting a separate statute is more desirable.
7)  There was a clear disconnection between some of the different working groups and the members of those working groups. In particular, there was a lack of joint work between two clearly connected groups, those working on the Right to Information and those working on Open Data.
8)   A constant topic of discussion that was not on the formal agenda was people’s concerns about surveillance and privacy. Aruna Roy, who works with the rural poor in India, admirably raised this issue in a plenary session, when she questioned US Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague regarding the levels of surveillance and interference with people’s privacy being carried out by the US and UK in what are supposed to be open societies.
9)  One of the issues that arose, but which was not discussed in depth, was the idea that if the OGP is not working for ‘us’ (civil society groups, in particular) what should we do about it?

To sum up, the OGP presents a good opportunity to make progress in terms of opening up governments to the people they serve, especially in terms of the dialogue between civil society and governments. However, even if ‘Transparency is an idea whose time has come’, as UK co-chair of the OGP Francis Maude[7] affirmed several times, the concrete actions are still missing and there is a lot of work to be done for transparency to become a reality. It would be a useful start if governments acknowledged that transparency is not an absolute good, and that there is a difference between enabling people to see the engine of government working, and sharing politicians’ grip on the levers of power.

[1] I would like to acknowledge and thank Andrew Ecclestone and Rick Snell for their insightful comments on this post.
[2] People’s tweets can be found via the #OGP13 hashtag

[3] Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries is a multi-country, multi-year study led by the World Wide Web Foundation to understand how open data is being put to use in different countries and contexts across the developing world.
[5] List of working groups:

Fiscal Openness Working Group
Open Data Working Group
Legislative Openness Working Group
Access to Information Working Group
Extractives Transparency Working Group
More information:
[7]“Transparency is an idea whose time has come”


Silvana Fumega

Rufus Pollock (co-founder of OKFN) met with the OKFNAU Melbourne ambassadors as part of his visit to Australia in the first days of September[1]. During this visit to Melbourne, I had the pleasure to sit with him to discuss the work of organizations focused on Open Government Data (OGD), such as OKFN, as well as the work done by Freedom of Information advocacy groups. This is the recount of my thesis topic[2] as well as some of the contributions made by R. Pollock to this discussion.
In the past 5 years, the concept of accessing governmental information has been extended to cover the idea of having access not only to information but also raw digital data, known as Open Government Data.
Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike”.
OGD has gone from non-existent to being a key feature for government officials, practitioners and advocates in just a few years. However, these developments would be unthinkable without the previous work (mainly during late 90's and early 2000s) of FOI advocacy groups (internationally and domestically). To exercise the right to access government documents and information was the first step to make this OGD movement a reality. That possibility to access government information together with the developments in ICT set the basis to this trend. 

As Pollock mentioned, Open Government Data “has been easier than FOI in certain ways. We are also in the right place at the right time”.

This statement rises up the strong correlation between the information environment and the initiatives arising from within that environment. Stiglitz‘s concept of information asymmetry can be applied to explaining some important differences between FOI and OGD, as they were introduced into environments with different levels of information asymmetry. In general, government secrecy was considered a natural operating norm before FOI reforms, however, nowadays, secrecy has to be justified.

Moreover, even though Freedom of Information and Open Government Data movements share many points in common, unlike FOI advocacy organizations, groups working on OGD are focused not so much on the advocacy to get greater access but on the use/reuse of the data. Creating tools to add value to the data is one of OGD's organizations primary tasks.

The FOI community has been mainly focused on the access while OGD groups are also dedicated to the reuse of the disclosed data.  These differences also explain the diverse approaches to their relationship with governments. In a matter of generalization (as there is no one model which fits them all), FOI organizations have focused on demanding access to information (usually via a request under FOI legislation). Thus, their relationships tend to bit more “confrontational” (specially when governments don't enact legislation on the topic or, where legislation is available, they refuse to disclose the requested information). Meanwhile, OGD movement is looking for a more cooperative relationship with governments. The difference resides in the fact that, in general, these groups work with the data the governments are willing to disclose.

Most of the advocates for FOI laws came from the transparency and accountability fields (and it has been largely a lawyers’ domain, setting a legalistic approach to the initiatives and adding to the confrontational relationship with governments) while advocates for greater government data openness come from a diverse number of fields. That is so, in the first place, because many sectors are interested in accessing and reusing open government data. Not only transparency advocates are interested in opening government data. As R. Pollock stated OGD “has presented a broader coalition of people who wanted it”. Corporations, academics, and programmers are also part of that movement that was previously a transparency-advocates-only field. Government digital data in reusable formats can be the primary source for economic growth, innovative business, development as well as greater transparency.

Even though these two approaches to government data and information are complementary, these two groups are not closely collaborating with each other, as one could imagine. Differences in approaches, languages, skills seem to build some barriers for their interaction. However, those differences are the key elements that make this collaboration necessary. To have provisions on formats for disclosure, to have clear licenses for the use, to count with more politically sensitive information proactively disclosed, to solve accountability problems with new tools, they are all tasks which require a closer collaboration from these two groups. Hopefully they both soon realize that if they approach their work in a collaborative fashion, they will get better results, not only to fulfill their mission but also for the well-being of citizens.

[1] I would like to thank Pia Waugh and David Flanders for helping me to participate in this meeting. I would also like to thank Rick Snell for his valuable comments. Another version of this post:
[2] If you have some comments, thoughts and/or materials on this topic you would like to share, please contact me @Silvanavf