27 Sep 2011

Tanzania and the Open Government Partnership: What does it all mean?

Photo from the US State Department
Over in the US last week, Rakesh Rajani, the Head of one of Daraja's main partner organisations, Twaweza, shared a platform with someone who you might possibly have heard of, a certain Barack Obama. The Brazillian president, Dilma Rousseff, was also there, as were the Presidents of Mexico and South Africa, Felipe Calderon and Jacob Zuma. The Tanzanian government was also represented, though not in this picture. In case you don't know him, Rakesh is on the far right.

The reason behind this get together of the great and the good was the launch of the Open Government Partnership, a movement to encourage greater government transparency all over the world. Rakesh made a short statement on behalf of civil society. He also managed to get Daraja's Maji Matone programme a brief reference in the opening video presentation on open government - see below.

The Open Government Declaration, which this initiative aims to persuade countries to sign, outlines four key commitments:
  • Increase the availability of information on government activities
  • Support increased engagement of citizens in government decision making
  • Ensure professional integrity throughout government administrations
  • Increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability.
Eight countries have signed so far, while another 38, including Tanzania, have committed to working towards this goal. Countries are to submit action plans, developed in consultation with civil society, showing how and when they will deliver on these commitments.

So is this anything more than an opportunity for big cheeses to get together and look committed? Let's be honest, the four commitments listed here are the kind of political statements that don't hold you to very much.  This is not a detailed list of specific information that should be made public, such as that monitored by the Open Budget Survey, for example.

Well, to some extent this remains to be seen - it's too early to say with confidence either way. But there are plenty of reasons to be positive about this.

Firstly, this isn't an initiative that exclusively targets developing countries - the US and the UK are among the first signatories. Countries don't join because their donors have effectively made them do so. This is about creating positive peer-pressure, a "voluntary race to the top" as Transparency International put it.

Second, the openness of the commitments listed above encourages local discussion about what's most relevant to a particular country rather than going for a one-size-fits-all approach.

Third, this is an idea whose time has come. Technology makes a level of transparency possible that was unimaginable even ten years ago.

There's no guarantee that greater openness automatically makes for more accountable and effective government - there are plenty of other obstacles as well. But as Owen Barder put it recently, "transparency is necessary but not sufficient for more accountable services. I get that. But it IS necessary". This initiative surely therefore deserves our support.

More particularly, the Tanzanian government deserves our support for getting involved. Accessing information from government in Tanzania can be a real challenge. As a result, political and media debates on policy and budgets often miss the point entirely, being based on partial or unreliable data. Better and more accessible data can go a long way towards stimulating better ideas for how public services can be improved.

What's more, as January Makamba argues, "Government collect and hold information on behalf of the people and citizens have the right to seek and get information about government activities." In other words, as well as being an effective way of improving services, open government is also a right.

In their letter, the government states that they "look forward to developing our action plan with civil society in anticipation of the follow up summit scheduled for March 2012 in Brazil." A specific target, with a deadline attached. Now we in civil society need to give the practical support and encouragement to make sure that target doesn't slip.

The question now, is what should be the priority for Tanzania? An India-style freedom of information law? New media laws to replace the unpopular Newspapers Act? Or more practical measures to publish more detailed budget and reporting data online, in the press and on public noticeboards?