While taking part in the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Ottawa, I realized I knew nothing about open government.
This is an odd statement for me to make considering a recent Medium postof mine is about open government, one of my recent podcasts is about open government, and I ran a workshop at an open government conference a few months ago.
But my context for open government is Canadian and after spending a few days with representatives from 79 member countries of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) I realized just how privileged and narrow my context for open government has been.
What is open government?
Wikipedia says: “Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. In its broadest construction it opposes reason of state and other considerations, which have tended to legitimize extensive state secrecy.”
My first mistake was conflating open government, open data, and policy innovation as one thing.
What is the Open Government Partnership?
The OGP website states: “In 2011, government leaders and civil society advocates came together to create a unique partnership — one that combines these powerful forces to promote accountable, responsive and inclusive governance.
Seventy-nine countries and a growing number of local governments — representing more than two billion people — along with thousands of civil society organizations are members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).”
Canada was the host of the OGP Global Summit this year which is how I found myself at the Summit.
My Misconceptions & Learnings
I mentioned two things above —one, the fact that I’ve been conflating open government with open data and policy innovation. These three things go together hand in hand, but they are different. I think one of the reasons that I’ve unconsciously done this is because some of the really big open government questions are “solved” in Canada. Obviously we can do better on many things and I’ll highlight some below, but we live in a country with a pretty open, transparent, and democratic system.
In my mind, open government has followed this stream of consciousness: “governments collect data and information about individuals, but do very little with this information. It makes sense for citizens to have access to this data in anonymized form, particularly so folks working in either an advocacy or research space can help governments find innovative solutions to problems. If done right, opening up access to government data will result in better outcomes for citizens.”
It had honestly never occurred to me that open government could and should be about government accountability, but rather a one way street for problem solving. Obviously this is a widely naive mindset.
I’m not undervaluing the issues with openness, transparency, and democracy in Canada — I’m just trying to highlight my reflection on why I think I had wrongly defined open government in my mind.
I do however think that our challenges are largely very small in comparison to the life threatening realities that delegates from other countries bravely brought forward.
Here are some of the things that I heard/learned
I had a deep discussion with a civil society leader from the Philippines who mentioned that their government issued a memo just days before the OGP telling staff they were not allowed to travel to Canada. This wasn’t shocking to her. She introduced herself to the group by actually saying that she may receive sanctions for attending the OGP Summit and speaking up about the backsliding of their democracy. If you haven’t been following the government related developments in the Philippines, I would recommend doing a google search.
There was a delegate from Tanzania unable to attend because his government had seized his passport — so he joined by video to speak to the delegates.
I participated in a roundtable discussion about women’s political empowerment and participation while sitting between a political refugee from Nicaragua and a former cabinet minister from Sierra Leone. Their personal opinions based on their own lived experience were obviously very different from my own on this topic.
A minister of the Afghanistan government spoke about the path to democracy in his country and how proud he has been to be a part of that work — and then he mentioned the attack on his ministerial government building that saw the death of 40 of his staff members.
I heard about Sri Lanka and the introduction of a right to information act as recently as 2016.
I learned about the open contract movement which seeks to advocate for governments to both publish government contracts online, and also engage citizens better in the process. This is a key anti-corruption mechanism as well as a founding issue for open government.
On the topic of anti-corruption, I also learned about beneficial ownership which refers to shareholders in both corporations and real-estate that receive benefits from the company. It is not actually a requirement to register the names of these folks in many places. The lack of transparency allows criminals to essentially launder money through corporations and real-estate. Canada does not currently have any regulations relating to beneficial ownership and it is estimated that over 50 billion dollars is laundered through corporations and real estate in Canada every year. British Colombia just introduced regulations on this becoming the first province to do so.
The Vancouver Sun outlines that: “The registry, to go online in 2020, is intended to cut through the levels of secrecy and anonymity that surrounds corporate ownership of property through numbered companies, offshore trusts, blind trusts and corporations. Examples include when land is owned by one numbered company, which is then controlled by another numbered company, even though both companies are the same person.”
Inclusion was a common theme and rightly so — the opening of government is a good thing, but we’ve got to open our governments to everybody including those who have traditionally been marginalized.
The consensus was that the OGP members still have much to do on inclusion. Indeed only 2% of global commitments have a gender perspective.
The CEO of OGP underlined this point in a powerful way by saying in some OGP countries he and his partner would be persecuted because of who they love.
The OGP Summit also included a full day event called Feminist Open Government Day. This was a unique experience to learn about what is happening globally on feminist open government initiatives while also creating the space for likeminded folks to connect.
A critical message from the Feminist Open Government Day was a reminder that intersectionality must be considered when implementing all policies. Not all people will experience a policy in the same way and this goes far beyond gender — Bias and privilege should be recognized.
Based on just a few examples listed above, it is easy to see why I acutely felt my Canadian privilege and it reminded me that when we talk about privilege here in Canada it is important to recognize even with our own challenges, we as Canadians carry an immense amount of privilege.
I learned so many things and started thinking about other topics in a significantly more meaningful way.
With 2000 people gathered to talk about global open government, I’m hopeful that in this age of uncertainty, opening up governments will be a tool and perhaps a solution. These were all incredible folks dedicated to making governments work better for their citizens — and engaging citizens in that dialogue.
Canada can and must do more to open governments up. I was shocked that the provincial governments were not represented nor was there a meaningful participation of First Nations. Although not members of the OGP, it would have provided an incredible learning and collaboration opportunity. The services that Canadians rely on are provided locally and it is important that open government be a principle adopted at all orders of government.
Canada must provide global support and leadership on open government. Hosting a global summit is great, but we’ve got to lead by example and support transparency across the globe because people are literally dying.