Posted 29 October, 2015 by Christopher Wilson

1+1 = meh: when tech capacity and commitment to transparency don’t equal open government

We have re-published this post with an updated link to the Progress Report referenced in the first paragraph. It no longer includes content taken directly from the Progress Report, as stipulated in the report’s terms of use.

The engine room recently evaluated Norway’s second Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plan and produced a Progress Report that is currently open for comment under the OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism (the report is now available for download in English and Norwegian). We learned a lot during the process: about how international norms develop and how Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) function, but also about how international norms get translated into national contexts. Most surprising was to find how much trouble the government of Norway had in developing and implementing OGP action plans, despite being so committed and well resourced. This blogpost explores that gap, and asks questions about what really produces meaningful open government policy, and what we can learn from fringe cases.

About Norway and the OGP Independent Review Mechanism

The Open Government Partnership is a voluntary initiative, in which countries develop their own commitments to open government principles, as well as action plans to implement them. It’s guided by an international steering committee and working groups, which are composed of representatives from both government and civil society. It’s a fascinating initiative that has capitalized on widespread tech-optimism and political will since its launch in 2011, and which employs several innovative strategies, like prizes for government champions  and success stories, original research and shadow civil society events. One of the most interesting aspects of the OGP is the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM), through which independent researchers in each country assess the quality of OGP implementation, and release a public report alongside governments’ self assessments. The engine room partnered with the Norwegian think tank International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) to review Norway’s first OGP action plan in 2013, and again for Norway’s second action plan in 2015. We’ve also written about OGP and privacy and live blogged the second OGP Summit.

Norway was one of the founding members of the OGP when it was first initiated in 2010, and is generally a strong proponent for openness, accountability and responsive government on the world stage. International rankings suggest that Norway’s performance is strong at home as well, topping the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index with a score of 9.93: Full Democracy, and ranking 7th on the OK’s Open Data Index and WWF’s Open Data Barometer. Norway also has the resources and infrastructure to efficiently implement an open government agenda, with dedicated government agencies for innovation and e-government, and national internet penetration of 97%.


Contrary to what you might expect given the country’s position, governance and resources, Norway received poor evaluations and low scores on both progress reports the engine room supported, as reflected in this summary from the most recent report (see box to the left).

The reasons for this are deeply contextual, and there’s a host of factors at play in the national political context. But at first glance, there are at least three main shortcomings that stand out as especially important:

  1. The Government didn’t manage to create an action plan that made any sense.
    The Norwegian action plans have way too many commitments, and most of these commitments either  describe things that have already been done, are vague (committing to recommend that an issue will be considered, without by whom or when), or don’t have a clear link to open government.
  2. The Government failed to follow through on its institutional commitment to the OGP
    Despite initial enthusiasm for the OGP, the mandate for OGP membership was promptly moved from the Prime Minister’s Office, to the MFA, to the Ministry of Government Administration, Reform and Church Affairs, where it now resides. There has been no high level political ownership or resource allocation that might have put this at the top of the agenda for the people in government who are actually expected to work on it. Government engagement with civil society has been equally lackluster, with initial consultations held over email or during summer breaks, and without any clear enthusiasm or follow through on civil society inputs.
  3. Civil society failed to care
    Perhaps partly because of the way government reached out, Norwegian NGOs haven’t managed to get excited about OGP, and most haven’t heard of it at all. For the first progress report, the IRM reached out to organizations that had relevant mandates, but few responded, and of those that did, almost none have remained engaged in the OGP process. Of those that have, the majority are now sitting on a government funded OGP Council, which is supporting the government in strategizing and implementing future action plans.

If it ain’t broke?

We spent a lot of time trying to figure out why civil society wasn’t actively engaged in the OGP processes. Part of this seems clearly due to the ways in which they were asked to participate, and part of it had to do with a lack of value added (see more below). But there seems also to be a perception that OGP simply isn’t needed in Norway. When surveying Norwegian civil society in order to organize consultations, we were surprised by how few NGOs actually work on domestic accountability issues, compared to the tremendous number that are working internationally. The few we found working on domestic issues relevant to openness didn’t self-identify with the international rhetoric of transparency and accountability, trading instead in Norwegian tropes and political currency that don’t directly translate to an OGP context. Several civil society representatives suggested that lack of OGP interest was due to the fact that Norwegian governance was already so very open and transparent. Government representatives repeated this perspective in earnest, and the high quality of collaboration between civil society and government was frequently cited when consultation practices were criticized.

Lost in the crowd

One of the most consistent messages in interviews and focus groups was about how much else was already going on. For government representatives working on financial transparency or citizen feedback in line ministries, there are a dozen political initiatives for each OGP commitment, plus a few international initiatives for which they’ve already committed time and budgets. This led to a lot of doubling up, and reporting on the same national activities for multiple international fora. It also meant that few government focal points saw the value added by yet another international initiative. It didn’t bring them extra budgets or other resources. It didn’t open political doors, and they’d never heard OGP referenced in a political statement by their Ministers or party bosses. OGP came to their desk as a box to be checked. And so it got checked, but not much more.

For civil society orgs, OGP never even really reached their desk. They too are stretched thin, and almost everyone we spoke with described a situation in which they struggled to keep up with the requests for consultations and input. For those that were working issues directly relevant to the OGP action plan, the OGP offered no clear value added.

No pain no gain

Whether or not OGP was crowded out by competing initiatives or seen as unnecessary, it clearly produced Norwegian action plan with little impact. The state of “open” in Norway is improving, but that seems to have nothing at all to do with OGP, which is a missed opportunity.

As long as the government is already investing some resources and attaching its name to the initiative, it would be good to get something out of it. And there remain plenty of areas where the OGP could help Norway to do that, to name a few:

  • by strengthening Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Educational Practices (OEP) reform in international standards,
  • by coordinating national efforts to contribute to country-by-country reporting,
  • by bringing international pressure to bear on public sectors that are far less transparent, like defense, or
  • by presenting international grant data in a way that is actually useful for national accountability.

But for that to happen, the process of developing and adopting OGP commitments might actually have to hurt. For OGP commitments and engagement to be meaningful in the Norwegian context, they have to be more challenging than simply describing what Norway’s already doing, and sending out a handful of emails. This is probably true everywhere, but in the most comfortable country in the world, where collaboration between civil society and government is strong, and where, according to the second Norwegian OGP action plan, “the Norwegian system is based on a culture of openness,” it’s an especially important challenge.

So what now?

For Norway, there are clear areas for improvement if they choose to continue to continue implementing the OGP, and both progress reports include a number of recommendations. Perhaps most important, however, is an honest stocktaking by political leadership about what OGP membership actually entails for Norway, and whether they are able to invest in the capacities, mandates and engagements that will make for meaningful actions. They might rather choose to abstain, and continue to pursue openness and citizen engagement in their own, thoroughly Norwegian way. And that might be just fine.

For those of us on the international sidelines who want to see OGP fulfill its potential as an international norm and as a bridge between civil society and governments, it also raises a number of other questions as well. What’s the best way to make OGP “stick” in a country where the norms are non-contentious? How do you generate civil society interest? Should meeting entry requirements be enough for countries to act as international advocates of open government?

These aren’t really questions that can be answered, but they are important questions to consider as OGP matures into its fifth year. And though it’s impossible to generalize from a case as contextually distinct as Norway, there is enough data now about how OGP is being implemented that we can start asking these questions seriously and comparatively. Open government case studies are all the rage (see those from Confluence, the Open Data Research Network,  GovLab, Involve, Sunlight Foundation, Open Budget Partnership, Microsoft, from a series of academic studies [such as this and this] and from the OGP itself). Now would be a great time to start sorting through them, to see what’s comparable, what’s not, and how many fringe cases like Norway’s counter our expectations. It might just be from the outliers that we learn the most.

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