Are Open Government Partnership members more open than non-members?

A recent research attempted to assess whether Open Government Partnership (OGP) members perform better than non-members in terms of openness and accountability. Here we focus on the MENA states, and elaborate on the OGP relevance for the region.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an international platform launched in 2011, aiming to foster openness and accountability in governance:

OGP’s vision is that more governments become sustainably more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of governance, as well as the quality of services that citizens receive. This will require a shift in norms and culture to ensure genuine dialogue and collaboration between governments and civil society.

In a nutshell, the OGP platform offers governments a space where to deploy a different sort of efforts. To become a member, the country has to meet precise criteria. Once a member, the government of the country has to outline commitments which align with the OGP values and sum them in an Action Plan, generally spanning two years. Today, 65 countries have joined the platform.

A recent blog post discussed OGP members’ performance compared to non-OGP members asking: Are OGP members actually more open than non-members? Goog question. It is also a compex one. There are evaluation reports for many of the OGP participating countries. Such evaluations help shed light on how commitments are followed up and respected. But how does one compare a) commitments across the individual OGP members; and b) OGP members deeds following action plans and other countries which do not have said plans?

Naturally, no methodology is perfect. The World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index 2015 has taken up the challenge to produce a first assessment. Regarding methodology, the research relies on four dimensions of government openness: a) publicised laws and government data; b) right to information; c) civic participation; and d) complaint mechanisms.These are quite intriguing as they account for a small bit of the reality and in no way establish causation. The researchers acknowledge this and other limitations, so the conclusions are to be taken with a grain of salt. The analysis concludes:

In our report, we compared Open Government Partnership member versus non-member countries and found that OGP participation indeed linked to more transparent, participatory, and accountable government in practice.

This is somewhat expected as candidate countries have to fulfill eligibility criteria in order to become OGP members. But how do MENA countries perform?

MENA and the OGP: An overview

The MENA region counts only two OGP member countries: Jordan and Tunisia; Morocco is also considering a membership but is not a member yet. Jordan joined first, starting the process to join in 2011, and justifying its desire to adhere:

Jordan attaches great significance to being part of the OGP, and views this Partnership as an opportunity and an important platform that gives us the chance to highlight the Jordanian model of home-grown reforms, as Jordan is well-positioned to be a model for successful reforms for our region.

Words count, but actions count even more. The OGP runs both a self-assessment and an independent reporting mechanism (IRM). The former is fairly self-explanatory; the latter sees an expert assess levels of achievement of commitments posed in the Action Plan. According to Jordan’s progress report released through the IRM, level of completion is not that great:

According to the IRM again, when looking at the types of commitments:

Surprisingly, only some of the 31 commitments Jordan has elaborated in its first Action Plan have clear relevance to an OGP value. I do not have an explanation about how this is possible. Overall, only 10 out of the 31 commitments reach a level of substantial or complete implementation.

From comments and feedback from Jordanian NGOs and hacktivists, I have gathered that Jordan has an important amount of government-linked/semi-public civil society. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it is the way it is. A well-written report that I frequently recur to is the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI). The Jordan 2014 report explains:

Some of the most important organizations conducting development and welfare projects among the poorer segments of the society areconnected to the royal family, and these royally or government-organized NGOs (respectively known as RONGOs and GONGOs) are said to dispose of the sector’s biggest budgets and to have the widest margin for political maneuvering. Many of the remaining civil society organizations are structured around kinship or clientelistic relationships, most often dependent upon a single figure or the support of one family.

The lack of citizen involvement in the OGP process in Jordan is indeed striking. When reading the whole IRM report on Jordan’s first OGP Action Plan, appalling comments come out:

Stakeholders interviewed claimed that civil society was not represented in the development and implementation of the plan […] According to the stakeholders, often government invites participation for consultative activities as an opportunity for positive media images or to meet donor priorities. […] Stakeholders stated that the process itself did not support the core OGP values of transparency and participation nor, more importantly, open government. Some stakeholders interviewed also believed that the exclusion of stakeholders was to avoid any kind of monitoring or evaluation of its functions or practices, which also affects accountability.

Disappointingly, the second Action Plan (2014-2016) does not mention any commitment aiming to improve and streghthen citizen participation either.

It is a bit less easy to assess Tunisia’s progress as it joined just several months ago. We were in Tunis in June 2014, accompanying friends from civil society in the drafting of a truly participative, open and transparent Action Plan proposal. The final version of Tunisia’s first Action Plan is online as of September 2014. It contains a clear commitment (#10, p.14) on enhancing citizen participation to decision-making. We know the IRM expert has also been named, so let’s see how these commitments will come to life.

MENA and the OGP: The WJP Open Government Index

So, given the above considerations, I was curious to dig into the WJP evaluations. And it is indeed interesting:

A screenshot from WJP Jordan profile page.
A screenshot from WJP Jordan profile page.

A screenshot from WJP Tunisia profile page.
A screenshot from WJP Tunisia profile page.

Tunisia thus comes as the MENA champion. Jordan is 4th — preceeded by Morocco and the UAE, followed by Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. These rankings are not that surprising since, as per the methodology, they are not based on Action Plan but on a series of polling procedures. I did not identify any justification about the choice of evaluated non-OGP members, so I will be writing to the WJP researchers for details.

Yet, I was interested to explore the details of these indicators especially in relation to access to information. Indeed, only three MENA countries have enacted such legislation: Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen (not featured in the WJP study. And yes, Yemen has such a law, for real). Tunisian and Yemeni legislations are pretty good while the Jordanian is vaguely worded and leaves room for improvement. Morocco has been working on such legislation, but the bill is stalled for now; Lebanon has introduced a bill to the Parliament in 2009… but that’s it. [I will follow up in separated posts on these developments later.]

So, here you go for a comparison of the access to information (ATI) dimension across MENA countries as evaluated by the WJP. All the numeric values are percentages of total answers received. The “corruption” bit means “proportion of people having filed a request for information and having paid a bribe to obtain the information”.

Looks intriguing. Actually, three some things struck me while doing the chart:

  1. I have purposefully excluded the UAE: indeed, according to the WJP assessment, 100% of the polled participants have filed requests for information and 88% of them have received information, all without paying a bribe. This is curious: the WJP has conducted two polls to obtain these results, one is a general population poll (i.e., you pick random people so that the whole population is represented) and a specific questionnaire addressed to country academics and practitioners. Results from these two polls are then pooled together to form the assessment baseline, thus representing an extrapolation for the whole population. So, if I follow this reasoning, it comes out that, among both the randomly picked people and the expert respondents, ALL have filed requests to address some governmental data; extrapolating this means that everyone in the UAE has filed such a request once in their lifetime… Excuse my scepticism, but I sort of have doubts about this whole bit. EDIT: The WJP people reached out on Twitter to clear the situation. The actual percentage is 0.49% which they have rounded to 0%. The exact number of people having filed requests for information is 8 out of 1,610 polled. It is confusing to see 0% but a breakdown of requests per types of information summing up to 100%, so I also asked them to explain this on the UAE profile page to avoid future confusion.
  2. UAE (again) and more generally, the granularity of information provided: This does not explain the breakdown of percentages of types of information requested is also surprisingly regular: either 14% or 29% per type. Does that mean that we are putting in the same basket a request about say, the address of a public school in Abu Dhabi where Chinese is taught and, say, the financial reports about Abu Dhabi road infrastructure maintenance spanning 2010-2014? EDIT: Eight people requesting information out of 1,610 polled is indeed very low. Overall however, it would be interesting to know what types of information has been requested. The point is: how is the information qualified in this sort of “requests for information” since there is no legal framework to define this in the UAE? In other countries in the region, there is no clear legal framework directing classification of information, which makes it actually classified by default…
  3. Jordan has the lowest awareness level of all MENA countries (8 percent) and the lowest amount of information requests — despite having a functioning legal framework.
  4. Jordan (again) is a clear outlier in terms of proportion of people having paid bribes to obtain information — despite having a functioning legal framework.

I am not taking some perverse pleasure in bashing these countries — but what happened to the “Jordanian model of home-grown reforms, as Jordan is well-positioned to be a model for successful reforms for our region”?

The elephant in the room

I do not want to finish this post without attempting to wrap up and respond to the question whether OGP members are more open than non-members. Yes, some MENA countries are more open than others but this is not a scoop. Yet, how much of this openness is due to the OGP? Comparing ‘before’ (joining the OGP) and ‘after’ is somewhat irrelevant since countries have to fulfill eligibility criteria on some of the main open gov axes, so they would perform better on these precise criteria.

So, how can we answer the question above? Honestly, I don’t  know. Yet, I have come to think that this quick overview should actually prompt differently framed questions: how constraint are the OGP members to follow their Action Plan commitments? Take Tunisia: it just joined and is already championing? Is it an OGP effect — or is it because Tunisia already had a fruitful pre-OGP set-up that enables greater openness and participation?

Let’s consider it that way. According to the WJP researchers, one of the two main outcomes of the survey is that “longer membership in the OGP contributes to higher levels of open government outcomes.” Well… Jordan has been a member since the onset, but lags severely behind. How does this outcome fit the MENA picture where a fresh member champions and non-members perform better than the longest-lived member?

Explaining the outcomes and the findings, the WJP researchers write:

But the correlation of membership to outcomes at least demonstrates that the eligibility criteria for joining the OGP serve as a decent proxy for practical success. The fact that successive action plans add to open government scores in the Index, however, suggests that there is also an actual institutional effect of membership on improving open government.

I shudder anytime someone disguises correlation as causation. Regretfully, that appears to be the case above as well. Regretfully again, eligibility criteria are mixed with non-binding commitments featured in an Action Plan whose elaboration has oft-suffered low coherence with the OGP values: how is this an “actual institutional effect of membership on improving open government“? Isn’t open gov a means to achieve social justice and to improve everyone’s welfare?

This is perhaps where I am trying to define an unidentified political object. Because when addressing governance, aren’t we talking about politics? Saying the opposite would be a white lie. Thus, critically examining OGP membership and the lack thereof is a political discussion. But this is somehow the elephant in the room: we are discussing numbers, methodology and statistics instead of looking at the actual meaning of these considerations. Nowhere I read about reforming the political system as a whole, about striving towards a more just and transparent political apparatus.

Which brings us back to the definition of the OGP: its action and operative approach are deeply political. But the OGP is not an international organisation (i.e., does not compare to the UN or the IMF, for ex.). It is rather a plaform for rooting and expanding soft power, that is a space where political influence is brokered. Take the French: France joined after Tunisia, is yet to produce its first Action Plan, but is already selected to preside over the OGP for October 2016-October 2017. Although young, the OGP has grown enough to constitute an influential enough actor in the international arena. As French online outlet Contexte sums it up, France taking the presidency without having produced anything tangible within the OGP framework is motivated by the political desire to a) not let anglo-saxon political values get too pervasive; and b) channel African French-speaking countries in the international democracy-building conversation.

These politically tainted considerations thus paint a different picture of this whole assessment of who-is-more-open, especially with regards to the political make-up of the different MENA countries. The question I have been asking myself though is: how do we actually make our governments to work for and with the people through the OGP platform?

Posted on: April 30, 2015, by :