What cities hope to do in the Open Government Partnership

Leaders from 15 cities and other 'subnational' governments met in Paris last week to discuss bringing more transparency to government. (Evan Abramson/Open Government Partnership)

Last week in Paris, French President Francois Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo welcomed government and civil-society leaders from around the world to discuss ways of bringing transparency to government decision making.

This summit of the Open Government Partnership was mostly focused on what national governments can change. The five-year old partnership has more than 70 countries participating in joint efforts with civil society to implement commitments toward fighting corruption, engaging citizens and making public data more open.

This year, cities and other subnational governments were a new force at the summit. Through a pilot program, 15 such authorities, ranging from Bojonegoro, Indonesia to Scotland, are testing out the Partnership’s collaborative model. Hidalgo convened them all for a meeting at Paris City Hall on Friday.

To find out more about this initiative and what cities hope to get from it, I spoke last week with the person who runs it, Brittany Lane. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

But first, here’s the full list of subnational governments participating in the pilot: Austin, United States; Bojonegoro, Indonesia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Elgeyo Marakwet, Kenya; Jalisco, Mexico; Kigoma, Tanzania; La Libertad, Peru; Madrid, Spain; Ontario, Canada; Paris, France; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Scotland, United Kingdom; Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana; Seoul, South Korea and Tbilisi, Georgia.


Christopher Swope: Let’s start with the Open Government Partnership in general — what is it and what does it do?

Brittany Lane: OGP started about five years ago, with eight founding governments and civil society leaders. It was founded by President Obama and also then-President Dilma Rousseff from Brazil and a few others. One of the biggest things that differs it from other global partnerships is that it was founded between government and civil-society community organizers. Civic activists were allowed to sit at the table with these national government heads to talk about how do we make government more responsive, more transparent, more participatory and accountable to the citizens?

We’ve grown to 70 countries that are part of this. It’s a partnership that is nonbinding.

The process is that a government becomes a part of the partnership, and is endorsed by civil society to do so, and then collectively, government and civil society create an action plan. That can go anywhere from committing to making a registry of lobbyists, or an issue on transparency, or it could be on participatory budgeting. The commitments run the gamut. Then over the next two years it gets implemented through technical partners, multilateral banks, community groups and through the governments themselves.

Q: Why is involvement from civil society so important?

A: One of the biggest issues we are seeing nowadays is that people feel as though government is not responding to their needs and is not listening. People feel as though they cannot get the government to do what they like, or understand why decisions are made.  

What the Open Government Partnership is founded on is the idea that civil society — it could be community groups, it could be bike advocates, it could be climate advocates, it could be just me sitting down with my mayor — civil society deserves a voice and deserves a space to be able to hold their government accountable and work together towards making change within the government.

Brittany Lane leads the subnational
pilot program at the Open
Government Partnership.

I think one of my Scottish partners said it best when she said that government officials feel it’s difficult to reach the people but the people think it’s difficult to reach the government. OGP is a space to make those conversations happen. Civil society and governments are on an equal level.

Q: So why now the push into working with cities and subnational governments?

A: OGP has been successful in creating space to talk about these issues. But the link to citizens’ lives on the ground, and changing quality of life in ways that could actually be felt by citizens, was something that we weren’t yet fully achieving. The idea was to engage at the local or subnational level because that’s truly where the rubber hits the road. Service delivery tends to be directed by local governments, county governments and other subnational governments. Hence the pilot program.

Q: How was this group of 15 subnationals chosen?

A: They were selected based on their commitment to open government. Perhaps they were implementing participatory budgeting, or they were working on having transparency with their lobbyists. They had to show particular issues that they are working on. They also had to have a civil society organization that would stand up and state that they’re ready to work together to make government more open and responsive at this level.

Q: It’s a very diverse group of places. Is that part of what you were looking for, to see how these ideas play in very different contexts?

A: Yes. There are many different scales within OGP. We have large global powers. We have the United States, we have the UK. We have many of the Nordic countries. Then there is also smaller scale countries that can act and make change that is just as important — for instance, Mexico, Malawi and Moldova.

In the subnational government portion, we didn’t want to make a judgement of where open government would be most effective. We really wanted to be able to experiment and have a pilot to understand in different governing systems, in different countries, how best to advance the needs of citizens at the local level. 

Additionally, our subnational governments are not the only ones working on open government at this level. Many of our countries are thinking through how to have local governments engage in the national process. For instance, in Paraguay, just last year, they committed to an action plan creating municipal participatory planning councils. I think so far they have implemented about 47 of these councils, and they’re working toward even more. We didn’t want to cut off that type of innovation or experimentation by saying, “Only cities, or only states.”

Q: For this first cohort of 15, what do they get out of being part of this group? What’s in it for them?

A: There is typically three types of actors that get a lot out of this.

One is the lonely reformer. For instance, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, we have a really passionate person who looked to OGP and said: “I want to get my county working to be more responsive to people. I’ve been working my whole life trying to make that happen. Can you help me?” That’s why he submitted his government to be a part of the subnational pilot program.

We’re bringing together government reformers who tend to be pretty lonely in their space of trying to drive governments to be more open and responsive. We can provide learning space for them. We organize working groups and peer-to-peer exchanges that take place. Then we can also connect them, those lonely reformers, and help to build their capacity to engage others within their government to think more about how to be more open.

Then there’s civil society. Especially at the local level, there are a lot of people very eager to get local governments to work on their issue or to respond on their issue. We give civil society space, and an umbrella in which to engage and kind of push their governments to think more broadly about the issues that they care about.

For the governments themselves, we also provide a direct linkage to potential donors and funders. In Kigoma, Tanzania, one of the commitments they are working on is related to health. It’s tracking the medical funds that have come in from the national government, but it’s also tracking how many days the health workers show up, the amount of medication they have, et cetera. We’ve helped join them up with potential donors to get funding to implement those types of commitments.

Q: For this pilot group, what actions have already happened and what comes next?

A: There’s an 18-month process. The subnational governments were selected earlier this year. They took about six months to work through what we call a co-creation process where civil society sat down with government to discuss what needs they had, what concerns they had, what challenges they had, and what they wanted to commit to do to make their government more open.

On December 1st, all 15 of our subnational pilot pioneers submitted their action plans. It’s the output from the co-creation process that just happened. All of them made about three to seven commitments that they will now attempt to implement over the next year. They have until December 2017. In the spirit of being open, all of the action plans have been published online.

Q: What are some examples of the actions the cities and other subnational governments have proposed?

A: Among the overarching trends from the 15 was a really deep focus on service delivery. This is something that nationally has not been as successful, because typically the national government won’t be delivering those services. We have safe drinking water, we have public security issues, land management and sanitation issues that are going to be addressed, we have land management and sanitation. There are commitments related to all of those.

For example, Buenos Aires is working on access to information about sexual and reproductive health for women. They’re also looking at transport data, and education, and also the ways that open government can move across not just the legislature and executive branch but also in the justice branch.

Another overarching trend is participatory budgeting. Some governments are doing it for the first time and using the Open Government Partnership as a way to learn from other governments who have done this well. Others have already done it but are now looking to do it in a much larger sense.

For instance, Paris has done participatory budgeting for a few years now and has really committed a lot of money to it. But they realized that typically the richer arrondissements would be the ones who would engage more in the process, so they would end up accruing more of the benefits. So they’ve committed to having a more inclusive process where they earmark a certain portion of their participatory budgeting funds to go to particular areas within the city that are less apt to engage.

In Kigoma, they’ve committed to publishing online their master plan. In order to do a master plan, they need to have information on the land uses of their municipality. They need to know what’s planned, unplanned and what’s open. In fact, they also need to know who owns what titles. All of that is something that is not currently accessible. They have an issue in terms of corruption and speculation within the municipality.

On the flip side, you have Tbilisi, Georgia, dealing with similar issues of land corruption but they are coming at it from an e-government perspective. They have an issue of illegal construction. They have zoning and building regulations, but they actually have a lot of payoffs and construction where an open space will be swapped out and citizens don’t understand why their public space is being turned into a hotel. They are committed to building an information portal they call the “smart map.” They are still trying to find the root of land corruption and find ways for citizens to have equal access to the space that’s all around them, but kind of coming at it with a different tool and starting from a different foundation.

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