Opening up about Open Government – Many Happy Returns

By Warren Krafchik and Peter J Evans (External Blog)
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The ‘Open Movement’ has been an exhilarating two-decade ride, growing to include Budget, Extractive Industries, Governance, Contracting, Illicit finance, Anti-Corruption, Ownership, Justice, and Environment communities. The movement is wide, deep, diverse, and complex. This Open surge stands out because of the breadth of the devotees: international institutions, donors, diverse country governments, and a wide range of CSOs – of all political stripes. Progressives and conservatives all found common causes in the promises of Open. 

Open’s widest vision is that it is both an end in itself (intrinsically good) and a vehicle for positive outcomes in efficiency, governance, accountability, and equity (which has instrumental value). Broad stakeholder coalitions would deliver open government and, in turn, deepen democracy, enhance growth, and herald a new era of equity. But this was not everyone’s vision. For some, efficiency and lean government were most compelling. Overall, Open’s strategy was heavy on “organization” and institutions, and light on politics. 

Open began with mostly private foundation funding, while the majority of foreign aid went to governments. The Open movement was arguably a ‘side bet’ to lubricate mainstream investments and encourage governments to play nice. Openness could still move from side-show to center stage, and so garner longer-term support and accelerate catalytic change. 

Open’s achievements are breathtaking and impressive. Feel free to add to our list, which focuses on fiscal openness.

However, there have also been disappointments:

  • Civic participation is stuck at low levels. Increasing public information without space for more participation creates the risk that bad regimes are “open washed” – lent legitimacy in return for thin commitment. More generally, with Open’s ‘big tent’ and low barriers to entry, countries do not have to live up to the rhetoric of broad public engagement. Power is rarely at stake. Boosting transparency can have unintended, negative consequences and this needs further exploration. 

  • With a few exceptions, legislatures have been Open’s disappointment, failing to deploy the power of the purse to hold governments accountable – and in the process, failing to provide adequate accountability channels for the public, SAIs and other accountability actors. 

  • Speaking of broken illusions, the private sector is still very… private. Despite engagement in EITI and some buy-in from rating agencies and banks, the private sector is conspicuously absent, even in the Open tech sector. This needs hard scrutiny.

Taking stock: lessons for happier returns 

There is no easy or fair method to evaluate overall progress. A growing body of evidence associates greater fiscal transparency with improved fiscal management, lower deficits and borrowing, reduced corrupt practices, and access to cheaper credit. There are also positive findings on the impact of greater transparency in government audits, revenue mobilization, and procurement. Adherents that bought into Open to reduce corruption and boost economic efficiency and growth will be pleased by these results. 

There is less evidence of Open’s broader instrumental dream: redistribution, inclusion, and democracy. This is disappointing but should not be a surprise. A value-driven mission is worthy, but it is naïve to expect this to be a roadmap to deliver real-world outcomes. Transparency has inherent merits, but it is not enough to shift accountability equilibria and catalyze complex reform. 

To deliver on more ambitious impacts, fiscal transparency needs complementary interventions, such as direct and indirect opportunities for public engagement, vibrant and independent media, and strong oversight institutions able to reward and sanction government performance

In hindsight, the Open movement is idealistic but not very political.

This is the gap that we need to fill, not just by saying we will be ‘politically savvy’ but by using political analysis to direct how we use data and action to target dialogue and reform. 

Over twenty years the environment has changed. In Open’s glory days, progressive leaders were in power and committed to openness. As democracies spread, civic space broadened, and multistakeholder partnerships were ascendant. But we are not in Kansas anymore… Autocracies are on the rise in many previously enlightened countries, garnering public support, and sometimes delivering material benefits even at the expense of civic freedoms. 

Open’s key strategic challenge is political. What configuration of institutions, incentives, and actors can wield the bargaining power to ensure that governments respond to trade-offs with inclusive and progressive policy choices that benefit underserved and excluded communities and bring the real-world changes that Open sought? Can the Open movement assemble, or be an important part of, coalitions powerful enough to influence these choices? 

So, what next? 

There is a lot at stake. This is the moment to critically review experience so far, and for a generative, inclusive, thorough, and creative dialogue to identify Open’s next, bold, strategic path. Not just assume a normative future of ‘like now, but even wider and bigger’.

Unlike the 2000’s, Open now has the people, organizations, networks, and data to inform this conversation. But we also really need critical, external voices that challenge assumptions, add perspective to our experience, bring critical eyes to our conclusions, and embolden the coalition. The process needs careful thought. There are many ways to skillfully facilitate A Conversation amongst like and unlike-minded allies – this process needs careful thought (and several separate blogs.) 

Open should be at the heart of efforts to renew democracy AND tackle inequality, but it is not clear exactly what that contribution should look like. The Open movement started just as the seeds of populism were sown. It is an uncomfortable connection that we have yet to fully explore: How could we have missed this? Could we have done anything to prevent or dampen populism’s rise?  Most importantly, what can we do now to offer a meaningful alternative?

We need to come to grips with harsh realities. As Open grew, inequality deepened. This allowed autocrats to deliver growth and reduce poverty while gunning for Open’s ‘intrinsic’ heart – inclusive democracy and civic and political freedoms. As democracy, transparency, and accountability advocates, we must focus on how to address these economic chasms that autocratic and populist powers have exploited. 

Now is the time to recenter equity as a core goal, not a ‘nice to have’. 

Other questions needing attention are Open’s unintended consequences, the role of the private sector, animating broad-based civic institutions while keeping elites on board, retaining diverse countries while incentivizing a race to the top, and so on. 

As our opening gambit in a renewed, urgent dialogue we think Open needs a P-wave – a focus on power, political constraints, a systems perspective, and a commitment to solve real problems. 

We offer these ideas as a complement to the Open movement, not to displace or replace it:  

1. Open power and open politics 

We imagine a next wave that is confident about power and politics, both ‘small p’ (political economy, constraints) and ‘big’ (elections, parties). The essence is a more actionable understanding of power and feasible redistribution in environments where power has long been tilted to executives, elites, and others with privileged access. It means being alert to risks that Open’s welcoming “big tent” may perpetuate inequality and entrenched power, not challenge it. 

“Zero-sum” reform rarely works as it induces elites to cling harder to the status quo. We need to identify relatively win-win reforms, where elites also see the benefits of progressive change as a political and electoral strategy - a gamble on development. Political economy tools help in this, but it needs action, not just talk. Each of the Open family may need a specialist ‘critical political’ friend, or perhaps a platform approach could support all. 

Shrinking resources makes the challenge extreme. Building new power to unlock progressive change may necessitate restructuring, even shrinking Open’s family, losing some current members and allies in government, business, and even civil society, and making space for a broader sweep of activists (movements, trades unions, faith, and feminist networks) more acutely motivated to deliver change, as well as working with government oversight institutions.

The political economy of the Open movement also needs examination (including the question of ‘What’ or ‘Who’ is Open?). Regardless of intent and principles, ‘Open’ is a political actor. This affects the nature and distribution of power in its associates. This requires self-examination but also external analysis, and being open to scenarios where components radically change, shrink, or end. 

2. Working the ecosystem 

Fiscal decisions and outcomes are determined by the balance of power in a dynamic system of actors within and outside government. For 20 years we focused on transparency and building the skills of individual organizations and networks. This produced important gains but fell short of changing lives. This was phase one.

Phase two should be about “fiscal ecosystems” including a wide range of formal and informal actors, inside and outside government, that might animate a cause, examine the incentives and the powers that each has, the roles they play, and the relationships they build with others. 

Relationships are fundamental: how institutions interact, and how these can work collectively to generate new strategic approaches – and greater bargaining power – to move public resources towards greater equity. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about a renewed, broader coalition that can knit together elite and grassroots capacity and action to advance agency and equity. In several countries, powerful social movements and community organizations – many led by women and people of color – are forging alliances with expert NGOs and the media, as well as national and local service delivery line departments to unblock funding for social services to excluded communities. Active SAIs are fighting alongside communities to tackle corruption, while new allies emerge in ministries and tax authorities. Multilateral and private donors are rethinking their approach to public finance. Organizations of professional auditors and public financial managers are looking to stretch their impact.  

This may be an unprecedented moment for coalitions of non-state and state actors at local and national levels to challenge and co-opt powerful actors to secure real gains – from social safety nets in Rajasthan to water and sanitation in South African informal settlements, to open tools for procurement in Ukraine. 

3. Tackling real, specific problems 

This approach is most practical if focused on understanding and tackling specific problems. There may be generalizable global lessons, but impact requires specific country application by partners that have the skills and incentives to take action. This is partly a passion and values endeavor – but only partly. Instrumental change can also be built with cool heads and evidence. The target is the specific problem tackled, not openness.  Openness is no longer the goal but a powerful tool in our toolbox. 

Such an approach offers big organizing opportunities for broadening the base of an ‘Open Plus’ coalition. The key is to start with the core problems faced by communities – access to housing, health, or welfare, not access to information – and to work with the local communities that have coalesced around the problem and understand it best. This may also be the key to new resources – big sector budgets not Open’s niche budget.

Of course, Open needs to be worth their while – to tangibly make their work more effective and solve those problems, not just big tent solidarity.

Imagine this organizing opportunity: Excluded communities across the country identify a common, critical service delivery problem. They are energized to act collectively, with information drawn from lived experience. As they gather momentum, government leaders smell the opportunity to solve a real problem and earn votes. Finance ministries rally around an opportunity to spend better. Hard-working civil servants nudge other unlikely bureaucrats onside. Formal civil society helps to weave together a coalition, research, frame asks, and hold governments accountable. As services slowly improve, Supreme Audit Institutions ally with communities to tackle corruption and inefficiencies in the service chain.

This kind of organizing is already happening. See the Asivikelane campaign in South Africa where much of this thinking emerged, and IBP’s broader SPARK initiative. Also see the Open Contracting Partnership’s work in Ukraine; and OGP’s new country strategy in Kenya and the Philippines

Combining these emphases – power, systems, problem focus – will need a reassembled coalition to solve real problems, break down silos, communicate with champions in governments, generate support from elite groups, and galvanize bottom-up voices – and ultimately generate new hypotheses to test and refine. 

Comfort zones will be challenged! There is much to discuss and no time to waste.  

To close: a BIG, LOUD, THANK YOU! 

It is easier to type out critical ideas than to guide organizations and movements through tough strategic decisions. It is fitting to end with a shout-out to leaders and teams that hold space for discussions and decisions that have real impacts on the trajectories of important organizations and the lives of those who work within them. Thank you!

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