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Why the Open Government Partnership Needs a Reboot

ogpThe Open Government Partnership was created in 2011 as an international forum for nations committed to implementing Open Government programs for the advancement of their societies. The idea of open government started in the 1980s after CSPAN was launched to broadcast U.S. Congressional proceedings and hearings to the American public on TV. While the galleries above the House of Representatives and Senate had been “open” to the “public” (if you got permission from your representative to attend) for decades, never before had all public democratic deliberations been broadcast on TV for the entire nation to behold at any time they wished to tune in.

This first step in open government was quickly replicated in state houses and city assemblies across the nation and the world.  Today, almost every democracy allows TV cameras to record public debates, hearings, votes, and other proceedings. But of course, that’s just access to watch what’s going on when elected officials talk in public. Behind the desks of publicly elected officials sit hundreds of thousands of civil service employees who spend the money appropriated, make the rules to implement the laws passed, enforce the laws, and make government run.

That civil service had rarely allowed the public to know what they say, write, and do in real time. They were not “open.” In some countries, the civil services are patronage tools of the parties in power. In others, the impersonal rule of law separates political power from bureaucratic administration. In many, patronage, clientalism, and bureaucratic administration mix with money and corruption and the processes of power are deliberately opaque.

In 2009, the Obama Administration declared its intent to be the most transparent administration in U.S. History, announcing that transparency and open government are good for democracy, business, and social progress. The administration went on to create the Data.Gov Open Data Portal, We The People Website, and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to spread the ideas of open government, through soft diplomacy, around the world.

Countries that join OGP must meet eligibility criteria, which includes fiscal transparency, access to information, public officials asset disclosure, and citizen engagement. They must commit to creating National Action Plans with specific compliance programs to transform their operational governments into transparent and open democracies. Each National Action Plan is audited by volunteers in country who compile reports on the status of each national commitment and score nations on their road to Open Government. The U.S. just released its Third National Action Plan and it is comprehensive and ambitious.

OGP has grown from 12 founding nations in 2012 to close to 70 today. There is now an underfunded OGP Support Group which organizes regional conferences, a steering committee with 12 national government representatives, a chair, co-chair, and 12 internally nominated and selected civil society representatives.

During the same period of time, member nations have submitted 100 National Action Plans and over 2000 commitments, of which a little less than 25% have been completed. Not bad for a global institution using collaboration and communication to drive needed changes in government openness. But at the same time, its not good enough. Change is happening too slowly, there is retrenchment in even the most “open” nations, and the public can feel few demonstrable benefits. During the same period, 247 journalists have been killed doing their jobs. In OGP countries like Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kenya, journalism is an extremely dangerous profession. A free press is a prerequisite for effective open government.

During the same period, we have learned of widespread and pervasive state spying on other states, civil society, and even allies. The growth of OGP membership, National Action Plans, and commitments has not made any impact on the international surveillance industry. Many in OGP feel that the consortium has hit a wall, and I agree.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 4.30.03 PM

OGP has grown from 8 countries to the 69 participating countries.

In October, OGP met for its Global Summit in Mexico City. I participated in the Civil Society Day, though my engagement with the Mexican government in the planning of the OGP Summit began in May. It was then that I volunteered to organize a pre-conference workshop on Smarter Cities. At the time, in May, the Mexican government had wanted to host the OGP Summit in Guadalajara and we, IBM, have a large manufacturing plant and customer briefing center in the city. We had already planned to host an IEEE Smarter Cities summit in Guadalajara the same week as the OGP Summit. I therefore volunteered to work with the IEEE organizers to build out a day combining “sub-national” examples of open government with OGP government and civil society participants so as to infuse OGP with some new innovative ideas coming from cities.

It was a good idea, but it was not to be because in June the Mexican government changed the venue for the OGP Summit to Mexico City and we gave up our effort to organize the workshop. But apparently, my idea to combine “sub-national” open government programs with OGP did not die because it was given a new life at the OGP Summit when members of the Steering Committee suggested that OGP should expand its charter to create “TEDx”-like franchise membership at the sub-national level, thereby inviting thousands of cities around the world to become OGP members.

Guys: This was not my intention and I think this is an extremely bad idea. We have expanded very rapidly over the past three years yet the expansion is mostly superficial. We are increasing membership but not increasing open government, and civil society is increasingly cynical about OGP. Many are saying it is a whitewash, lipstick on a pig, giving national governments a nice pretty facade of openness behind which they write laws restricting access to executive emails, forbidding foreign funding of journalism, empowering universal surveillance, and even worse.

OGP is expanding too fast without delivering the real benefits the world needs, and adding cities, expanding even further, is not going to change the outcomes.

I am a big fan of OGP and feel that the ideals and ambition of this partnership are noble and essential to the survival of democracy in this millennium. But OGP is a startup, and every startup business or program faces a chasm it must cross from early adopters and innovators to early majority market implementation and OGP is very much at this crossroads today. It has expanded membership at a furious pace the past three years and it’s clear to me that expansion is now far more important to OGP than the delivery of the benefits of open government to the hundreds of millions of citizens who need transparent transformation.

OGP needs a reboot.

The structure of a system produces its own behavior. OGP needs a new organizational structure with new methods for evaluating national commitments. But that reboot needs to happen within its current mission. We should see clearly that the current structure is straining due to the rapid expansion of membership. There aren’t enough support unit resources to manage the expansion. We have to rethink how we manage national commitments and how we evaluate what it means to be an open government. It’s just not right that countries can celebrate baby steps at OGP events while at the same time passing odious legislation, sidestepping OGP accomplishments, buckling to corruption, and cracking down on journalists.

Here are some ideas for an OGP Reboot:

1.  Make Steering Committee meetings open to the public.  Why is an organization dedicated to transparency having secret leadership meetings?

2.  Make civil society membership in the steering committee subject to democratic elections among civil society organizational members. Why is an organization dedicated to democracy allowing CSO’s to self-select who gets to run the organization?

3.  Create electronic voting mechanisms for OGP member nations (all citizens) to vote on changes to the charter, admission of new members, and other matters and policies that effect the people for whom OGP is designed to benefit.

4. Create specific and automatic membership termination criteria — requiring members to meet specific commitments withing x years or be automatically sent packing.

5.  Create specific criteria for ejected members to reform and be re-admitted.

6.  Create an OGP Foundation to provide specific grants to CSO organizations that promote OGP principles through specific national programs.

7.  Measure the openness of nations based on all factors exogenous to National Action Plans. There are so many ways nations can create plans yet still undermine open government with policies and programs outside the scope of OGP. The OECD is now measuring national prosperity with factors beyond GDP. OGP needs to measure national openness with factors beyond NAP commitments.

8. Make OGP summits into cathartic international conversations on how we can improve. The last summit was a PR love-fest of proclamations about all the progress that has been made and no one talked about the setbacks, challenges, and hard work overcoming corruption and violence to pry open the dark and dusty corners of government power.

An Open Government Partnership without honest conversations confronting common challenges isn’t very open at all. We can and must do better. Doing more of the same, membership expansion, expecting better results, is not a recipe for success.

Every human organization and government is imperfect. I don’t expect OGP to be perfect. And I’m not against OGP. I’m for it. I’m proud of it. And I want it to be better, to relentlessly strive to improve itself — to deliver the benefits of open government to the citizens of its member states and the world.  It just can’t do that within its current structure.

OGP needs a Reboot.  Not expansion in membership.

AdlerSteven Adler (@DataGov) is chief information strategist for IBM. He is an expert in data science and an innovator who has developed billion-dollar-revenue businesses in the areas of data governance, enterprise privacy architectures, and Internet insurance. He has advised governments and large NGOs on open government data, data standards, privacy, regulation, and systemic risk. 

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