Civil Society's Role in Open Government

October 30, 2013

History confirms the crucial importance of active citizens, individually and collectively, in driving social progress. Whether in the fight against grave injustices nationally and internationally or in protecting our precious freedoms, the greatest social advances have come through the pressure of engaged and informed citizens on their political leaders for action, and a determination to ensure commitments are met in full.

The opportunities today for this active citizenship has never been greater. Mobile technology and the Internet enable us to access more information and make connections more easily than ever. We have already seen how the Internet has increased choice, cut costs and improved services for consumers. It has rich potential to deliver the same benefits for citizens by transforming the services governments provide.

Rarely, too, has the need been greater. Challenges are so complex that they are beyond the power of governments alone to overcome. The wider the dialogue and participation, the greater the chance that the right priorities will be chosen and the right long-terms solutions identified.

This is why it is so worrying that, right across the world, we are seeing an alarming trend to quieten the voice and influence of active citizens and civil society organisations. We can see this in new laws which inhibit freedom of association, in restrictions on funding or activities or the intimidation of individuals as is increasingly the case in countries such as Russia. For every Government such as Brazil which is ready to engage with critical citizens, there are others such as Turkey where the initial response appears to be to a determined effort to stifle peaceful protests.

It can be found, too, in the increasingly desperate efforts of some governments to control access to the Internet within their borders. Vietnam, for example, has introduced a controversial law which makes it illegal for its citizens to post news on-line.

It is true, of course, that active citizens and civic groups may not make life easy, at least in the short-term, for those with the responsibility of power. What they say can be neither comfortable nor convenient.

But as President Obama said last month, strong nations recognise the value of active citizens. He warned that without the ability to organise and dissent if necessary, accountability is severely weakened and social and economic progress will be slowed or halted. And he challenged countries, businesses and campaigners to help reverse this trend.

This challenge will be in the spotlight this week at the Open Government Partnership summit in London when over 1000 participants from civil society organisations, businesses and governments meet. Launched two years ago, the OGP is an international platform to encourage governments to be more open, accountable and responsive to their citizens. We have been active participants and supporters of the partnership from the very beginning.

From an initial group of just eight nations, the OGP now includes over 60 countries all committed to ambitious open government reforms including providing more information and greater opportunities for people to influence priorities and policies. The summit provides an important opportunity for countries and civil society to share best practice and to make new commitments on how to take forward the open government agenda.

But we also recognise that the benefits from such measures will only flow if civil society is strong enough to participate fully in shaping priorities and holding political leaders to account for their actions. So we will also be discussing what we can do individually and collectively to defend civic space and advance effective models of civil society engagement.

This must start with a new determination within OGP countries to promote active citizenship in their own societies. Our countries, at every level, need to be ready to set an example which others follow.

But this must be matched with a determination to support active citizenship across the world, particularly where it comes under attack. This requires not just governments but citizens within our countries to speak out against human rights abuses wherever they take place and where individual freedoms are threatened. A priority must be made to find ways to provide practical support to civil society groups to enable them to function better and play this crucial role.

Strong civil societies are critical to economic growth, good governance and human dignity. It is in all our interests to ensure we support them.

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