Reflections from the OGP Summit on how to advance engagement of Civil Society & Accountability Institutions in OGP National Action Plans
* By Carolina Cornejo (ACIJ, Argentina), moderator of the session on October 27th, CSO Day-OGP Summit, Mexico.
Last month, many of us gathered in Mexico to discuss strategies to advance engagement of accountability institutions in OGP National Action Plans. We held a preparatory session on the CSO Day in the frame of the OGP summit. This activity was organized by U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, ACIJ and the World Bank, and co-sponsored by Twaweza and Abriendo Datos Costa Rica.
Among the discussants, Aidan Eyakuze (Twaweza, East Africa), Susana Soto (Abriendo Datos Costa Rica), Marko Sošić (Institut Alternativa, Montenegro) and Caroline Gibu (Ciudadanos al Día, Peru) shared some insights coming from their experience as CSO practitioners advocating for open government, while Cecilia Azuara (Instituto Nacional Electoral, Mexico) offered her perspective as an institutional representative. The debate revolved around how to advance engagement of accountability institutions (AIs) in the OGP. Benefits, challenges and strategies were preliminarily identified.
To begin with, we must note that when dealing with accountability institutions we´re generally referring to supreme audit institutions, ombudsman offices, information commissions, and all those agencies that work as check-and-balances to central power. Even though the session mostly addressed supreme audit institutions (SAIs), we need to consider the role of Legislatures as a critical component of the accountability ecosystem, as noted by participants.
When promoting AIs´ engagement in the OGP, there´s a critical question we should answer straight away: How do we get AIs to collaborate with CSOs so that we can bring them into the open government agenda?
Discussants pointed at the challenges that AIs face, given that CSOs can be a key ally to help overcome them. To begin with, AIs are often unknown, and even “unloved”. Despite their mission towards the defense of human rights and their contribution in improving people´s quality of life, very few are actually aware of their role and work. This brings us to a second challenge AIs encounter: given the highly technical duties they perform -which show in their products-, how can we expect citizens to acknowledge their mandate and impact of their work? In other words, how do we expect citizens to read an audit report? “We need to get AIs to be good story-tellers” suggested Aidan Eyakuze in a call to turn numbers into stories, audit findings into records of results that can truly show how AIs´ work impacts daily lives. This indeed relates to a third challenge: audit reports are seldom debated in Parliament, and recommendations are hardly acted upon, not to mention that lack of resources was also addressed as an additional threat to AIs´ work.
So, how can CSOs engage with AIs to help tackle with these challenges? As noted by discussants, experience tells that AIs´ planning can work better -and effectively respond to social needs- when admitting CSO input, and further impact can be enhanced through citizen engagement. Also, when it comes to reaching out to citizens, CSOs can turn into great partners (even the media can help bridge out to audiences to foster acknowledgement of AIs´ products, but being well-aware that they may also turn into “double-edged swords” and risk discrediting AIs´ work, as put forward by discussants). Furthermore, Caroline Gibu suggested that “CSOs can collaborate with AIs in their technical battles, though it seems there´s little open space to engage in political ones”. Yet, participants acknowledged that CSOs can back AIs when their independence is compromised, when their mandate or capacities are at risk of being cut off, and even when AIs´ authorities are threatened to be illegally thrown out.
Consensus was reached regarding the benefits of AIs-CSOs´ engagement, but -following Marko Sošić- “How to get auditors´ attention? How to raise CSOs´ interest in advancing engagement with AIs?” As pointed out in discussants´ interventions, a thematic approach could contribute to identifying aligned agendas and shared interests. However, the big challenge here is to create trust (which can indeed take time, especially given the nature of a non-exclusive relationship), and to note that collaboration in not just about voicing each other’s´ claims, but rather finding fields for coordinated action that can enhance both AIs and CSOs´ work.
In this sense, Susana Soto emphasized the need to foster collaboration from the onset and to ensure that AIs offer a space for participation which is not merely restricted to “citizen complaints” (and even in these cases, broad access to information must be ensured to promote informed participation). The question here is how to move from consultation to effective collaboration, meaning a two-way interaction that can benefit both sides (CSOs and AIs). It takes confidence, conviction and training, but above all, constructive engagement. In this respect, most participants agreed on strategies to encourage dialogue and reach out to AIs in a purposeful and collaborative manner, but cautious enough so as not to become partisan (thus suggesting that, when it comes to engagement, AIs are not the only ones that face dilemmas concerning their independence). Also, participants identified an entry point for engagement in AIs´ champions, that is, those officials or AIs´ authorities who are truly committed to an open agenda, those who can push for constructive engagement with CSOs, ensure its sustainability, and expand collaboration in the frame of the OGP.
So, how can AIs actually engage in the OGP? Discussants pointed at two roles these agencies can play in this field. First, many AIs implement good practices fostering transparency and citizen engagement in public management and audit, and such initiatives could be enhanced if included as a specific commitment of these institutions in OGP National Action Plans. Secondly, it would be wise to bring AIs on board as third part monitoring agencies, that is, to oversee whether executive offices engaged in the OGP are truly delivering the commitments included in their action plans. This could supplement the OGP review mechanisms, provide stronger back-up to evaluations and contribute to enforcing such commitments. In turn, AIs could get further visibility, strengthen their legitimacy at the international arena, and push for reform at the local level. As noted by Cecilia Azuara, transparency mechanisms can indeed strengthen AIs and their credibility as autonomous bodies. This could be reinforced by joining a multilateral initiative with shared principles (access to information, citizen empowerment, and improved accountability, among others).
To sum up, it seems that there´s more to win than to lose in AIs-CSOs´ engagement. Both sides face challenges and dilemmas, and creating trust between them comes as the first step to advance constructive engagement, which has indeed come up in the discussion as the most critical point. Collaborative approaches and dialogue can work to reach out to AIs, but there is a need to consider country contexts, and the specific mandate of AIs, and finally, to ask each other whether cooperation can actually work in time, beyond OGP National Action Plans, and especially without support from international donors or resources brought in by AIs or CSOs.