As co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, in a very few months Brazil will play host to a meeting among more than 50 countries participating in an unprecedented global initiative: a ‘multinational and multi-stakeholder’ effort to improve accountability, transparency, access to information, and greater participation in the affairs of government. A sort of club for countries committed to openness, the OGP was announced at the United Nations in September 2011 and will take on a more concrete character after the April 2012 meeting in Brasilia.
Ironically, the most difficult of the initiative’s goals is perhaps the least abstract – securing broad citizen participation. As the lead non-governmental coordinator for the OGP, U.S.-based Global Integrity developed a ‘Networking Mechanism’ to try to spur collaboration between governments, citizens, and organizations. But creating collaborative synergies from the outside-in is not easy. I signed up early for the Mechanism, as have colleagues of mine, but none of us has been approached by government or other NGOs here in Brazil. Indeed, not unlike other countries involved in the OGP, Brazil appears to be having a tough time fulfilling one of the 7 basic tenets of the initiative:
STEP 3: Undertake the broad public consultation to inform the government’s OGP commitments, and identify a multi-stakeholder forum for regular public consultation on OGP implementation.
Three threats may be preventing participation from being ‘broad’ and ‘consultative.’ First, some governments tend to act as the ‘command-central’ of participative initiatives, leading participation in a corporatist fashion. Second, participation in some countries exhibits elements of a clubiness that goes against the plural and transparent principles upon which the OGP was established. Third, many governments are just plain behind, and as a result have not encouraged or facilitated meaningful participation. On February 13th 2012 freedominfo.org reported that 21 governments are “tardy” on updating their commitments. For its own part, Brazil has not reported any developments on the OGP website since September of 2011 – notwithstanding its example-setting position as co-chair. What’s more, no ‘broad consultation’ or ‘multi-stakeholder forum’ has taken place on the web — the best medium for a forum in a country as big as Brazil.
What I was Told by the Brazilian Government
I spoke with a senior representative of Brazil’s Comptroller General (CGU) in October of this year, just after the announcement of the Open Government Partnership in September. This official communicated the government’s clear commitment to the initiative, but was short on plans for concrete participatory mechanisms. Afterwards, I thanked my interlocutor by sending an email and recommending a few specialists on various facets of open government within Latin America. I never received a response, which is perhaps to be expected when interacting with a busy senior official. I sent a second mail in mid January, inquiring about public consultations on the OGP, and I waited five days before sending a follow-up inquiry.
This second mail was calculated to elicit a response, and it hit a bit of a nerve. I received an email telling me that the Comptroller General has been having “frank and open” dialogue with civil society. The CGU has been in close consultation with three NGOs: IBASE (Rio de Janeiro), INESC (Brasilia), and Transparência Hacker (more a ‘collective’ than an NGO proper). The official also pointed out that government had set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Open Government (Comitê Interministerial Governo Aberto).
Yet thus far, the facts suggest a rather disappointing “broad public consultation” by the Brazilian government. A three-NGO consultation is, by any measure, inadequate for a country of 190 million people. And the last news on the internet about the “Inter-Ministerial Committee on Open Government” was from December 21st, around the time when this coordinating body was first established; the Committee also lacks any sort of official web presence.
Threats to a “Broad Public Consultation”
Anyone would plainly agree that these efforts fall considerably short of a “broad public consultation.” Yet while government efforts at interacting with the wider public still have much to be desired, it is ultimately civil society leaders who should be taking the initiative to urge government to move forward, and to undertake consultation on their own. The government-society consultation should be the last step in a broad public deliberation orchestrated by civic representatives in what is ultimately an initiative to benefit citizens.
Both government and the NGO community should be providing open forums for input, announcements, and updates on meetings with whoever is having ‘frank and open’ discussions. ‘Frank and open’ does not mean transparent unless the content of those discussions is visible and readily inferable to the public i.e. at a minimum, online.
The danger of government-led policy initiatives becoming a ‘club’ affair among a few civil society representatives is ever-present, especially within the Latin American political context. Much like other regions, Latin America has a history of civic-initiated movements that are summarily incorporated within an ‘official’ or ‘party-based’ framework. The result is often neutralization or co-optation.
To date, open government discussions have not included perspectives from grassroots and thematic public data and information users, producers, and those actively involved with deliberating with government. The discussion to date has primarily been within CIO and IT sectors.
To its credit, the Canadian government has at least provided a venue for public input, including a Twitter forum on December 19th, 2011. It also recently posted an update on its OGP commitments, dated January 31st 2012.
It is clear that dialogue should first start with “broad consultations” within society. Government might help by urging organizations to set up a broad steering committee that can reach out to various parts and sectors of the country. But ultimately, organizations should take it upon themselves to coordinate and reach out, avoiding an exclusive dialogue with government and a handful of other ‘elite’ organizations – as attractive as that might be. Second, government must set up a broad forum – on and offline – to entertain suggestions and concerns from all sectors and geographic regions.
Finally, it is worthwhile thinking about how civic leaders and governmental officials in one country might help those in another. This third level of dialogue is essential, and in this respect Global Integrity’s Networking Mechanism has been disappointingly under-utilized. Countries like Brazil – fledgling and uneven democracies with traditions of centralized control and a young third sector – might do well to reach outside of their borders and seek-out examples, direction and dialogue.