Opinionista Gabriella Razzano 22 May 2015

The open government calculation and South Africa’s opportunity

The Open Government Partnership presents a unique opportunity to South Africa, one where government can become more open and more accountable. It means we can ensure that not just open data is forwarded, or even more information, but that commitments can be designed that directly promote increased accountability in South Africa.

In South Africa, a newspaper or news site seemingly cannot pass a day without corruption and mis-expenditure seizing at least one headline. From the continuing call for the president to account for the Nkandla corruption, to 15 South African Police Services officials from the Eastern Cape appearing in court on corruption charges in April and R 700 billion reportedly lost to corruption over the last 20 years according to the Institute of Internal Auditors, it appears graft may be endemic to our bureaucratic structures.

Corruption is a simple equation, according to Robert Klitgaard:

“Corruption = Monopoly Power + Discretion – Accountability”

Yet South Africa appears to find this equation unsolvable.

Are these stories a fair reflection of the South African reality? Our partners at CorruptionWatch recently reported on South Africa’s performance on the new “Open Government Index”. The good news is that our performance in terms of that index was fairly strong. Internationally, South Africa ranked as the 27th most “open government” out of the 102 countries evaluated, and the highest ranked African country regionally.

But let’s dig a little deeper. There is, of course, another index that measures public perception: Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. And in this area, South Africa has not been faring well…in 2014 we were ranked 67th out of 175 countries on the corruption scale, with several African countries being perceived as notably less corrupt than us. Putting aside methodological and political assessments about these forms of ranking, they nevertheless provide an interesting discussion point.

These results seem somewhat inconsistent. How can we be perceived as corrupt and open at the same time? Let’s consider a point raised by Yu & Robinson in 2012: open government should not be conflated with open government data. Open government is more than just being open about information; it is also about being open about information that forwards accountability.

Sometimes, when a government is merely being open with data, this data is not necessarily enough to hold the state to account. From a political perspective, a government may be keen to forward data as it controls release – but may nevertheless hesitate to permit access to controversial data demanded for by citizens that enhances accountability. Consider for instance Kenya, which, while broadly commended for its progressive open data policies, still has as yet to pass a specific access to information law. It is the accountability part of the equation that may be missing from our South Africa algorithm. And the Open Government Index seems to support this, noting that South Africa performed worst at the level of sanctioning officials for misconduct than in other areas.

These performances also shine a light on an immense opportunity: the Open Government Partnership (OGP). South Africa is a founding member of the OGP since 2011, and will take over the Chair of the Partnership later in 2015. The OGP is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. Governments sign the Open Government Declaration and then pledge commitments to “stretch government practice beyond its current baseline” that are then implemented by the state, and peer monitored.

How can this Partnership contribute to solving the corruption problem in South Africa? The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) has been conducting in depth a review that compares the OGP review mechanism to others, namely the African Peer Review Mechanism, Universal Periodic Review and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Anti-Bribery Convention Review.

One of the most significant contributions of the OGP – above other mechanisms – that we were able to note is its unique development of indicators: governments collaboratively develop commitments with civil society that are then self and peer monitored, as opposed to monitoring being based on pre-determined indicators imposed on the member countries.

The OGP therefore provides a massive opportunity in the open government equation, as it means we can ensure that not just open data is forwarded, or even more information, but that commitments can be designed that directly promote increased accountability in South Africa. We become the creators of our own ambitions, which can fill in the missing activities that are contributing to our corruption problem.

You do the maths.DM

There is an OGP Africa Regional Summit in Tanzania on 18-21 May. ODAC will be there. Follow the discussions and proceedings on twitter @ODAC_SA and @opengovpart.


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