10 December 2015

The Open Government Partnership and South Africa’s Commitments

In October 2015, the Open Government Partnership Global Summit was held in Mexico, bringing together participants from governments, the United Nations, and civil society. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an initiative aimed at fighting corruption whilst promoting transparency, accountability and public participation in government. First established in 2011 by eight countries, the OGP now has 69 member countries. South Africa was one of the eight founding members of the OGP, and at this year's OGP Summit assumed the role of Chair of the OGP for a 12 month period.

On 26 November 2015, SAHA research intern Thomas Crankshaw attended an event hosted by TechSoup Global and the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) at CIVICUS in Johannesburg, for local civil society organisations to hear presentations from, and interact with, representatives from government, the OGP Steering Committee and civil society representatives. What follows is a precis of government's feedback at the event and SAHA's response.

County members of the OGP have to formulate Country Action Plans, which run on a two-year cycle, containing commitments to progress in different areas to encourage open government. Country Action Plans are, naturally, specific to the countries that formulate them and must reflect the particular obligations and priorities of each country. The government of South Africa, for example, has to align its Country Action Plan with its constitutional obligations and existing local policies, as well as its international commitments. Furthermore, Country Action Plans are supposed to prompt improved practice so that governments don't use existing policies or programmes as indicators of performance towards the fulfilment of new OGP commitments. For example, South Africa's first Country Action Plan contained a commitment to establish an anti-corruption hotline, even though the hotline had already been set up in 2004, defeating the object of formulating the commitment.

Mr Thokozani Thusi of the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), the government department responsible for South Africa's participation in the OGP, highlighted the eight commitments South Africa has made in its new Country Action Plan. These commitments include:
1. Strengthening citizen-based monitoring,
2. Open budgeting,
3. Back to basics programme (developing a tool kit for citizen engagement),
4. Development of an integrated and publicly accessible portal for environmental management information,
5. Land Cover Product (provision of the National Land Cover data for decision-making processes),
6. The development of a pilot Open Data Portal for South Africa which will make information published by government available in a more accessible format,
7. Roll-out open government awareness raising campaign,
8. Implement South Africa's action plan on the G20 High Level Principles on Beneficial Ownership Transparency to improve the transparency of legal persons and arrangements in order to protect the integrity and transparency of the global financial system.

These commitments were influenced by a government survey's finding that citizen participation, transparency and accountability were ranked as the most important principles (87% importance) to the South Africans surveyed, more important even than the principle of anti-corruption (83% importance). The South African OGP Country Action Plan for 2015-2017 can be found here.

Mr Thusi specifically emphasised South Africa's commitment to the fulfilment of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16): to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. SDG 16 includes a number of targets, although Mr Thusi focused on the target of improving access to justice. Until now, commitments addressed to access to justice have been in the small minority of commitments incorporated into OGP Country Action Plans; Mr Thusi posits that this has changed following the latest summit and that South Africa aims to ‘be a guiding principle for implementing SDGs'.

This renewed commitment by government to transparency, accountability and access to justice is of particular interest to SAHA, as SAHA's Freedom of Information Programme has, since 2001, been one of the most active local civil society organisation in the use of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to gain access to both government and private body records and to make those records available to the public. SAHA has also been involved in a number of strategic litigation matters concerning access to information under PAIA. The right to access to information and the right of access to justice are indivisible, as access to justice is often reliant upon the citizenry having access to crucial information held by the government or other bodies. Commitments such as a publicly accessible portal for environmental management information and an Open Data Portal, if realised, could complement the right of access to information and contribute towards the prevention of costly and time-consuming litigation against the state on access to information matters.

It is hoped that in pursuing its new commitments in the Country Action Plan, the government will display a willingness to partner with a wide array of civil society organisations in order to improve the citizenry's knowledge of the government's commitments and policies, and hence promote accountability.



OGP South Africa Website: http://www.ogp.gov.za/

UN Sustainable Development Goal 16: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/peace-justice/

The Huffington Post special series on Open Government: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/open-government-partnership/