The South African government completed its term as lead-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in December 2016. The partnership is an international initiative formed by eight countries in 2011 that has grown to 75 members. Its aim is to improve public sector governance and encourage civil society participation in making governments more accountable and responsive to citizens.
Some of the original founding members include Brazil, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, Britain and the US. Nigeria is the most recent African country to sign up.
Countries are invited to join if they meet the minimum eligibility criteria. These include a framework on open budgets, a law on access to information, public asset disclosure rules and basic protections for human rights.
Member countries are required to develop national action plans that are implemented in a two-year cycle. They are expected to submit self-assessment reports within the period. In addition, the partnership secretariat appoints a country researcher who consults with government and civil society organisations to monitor the implementation of the plans and develops both a mid-term and end of term assessment reports. Ultimately, the OGP provides an international platform for change agents at a country level both within and outside government to make government open, accountable and responsive to citizens.
South Africa has just been given an end of term report for its recently concluded two-year action plan. The report, released in December 2016, shows that it failed to meet key targets it set at the beginning of the process. But it also shows improvements in some areas.
Why people’s involvement matters
During South Africa’s two-year leadership the partnership hosted the Africa regional meeting focused on using open government for sustainable development in Africa.
This was significant because 2016 signalled the beginning of the implementation of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). The goals are premised on the idea of partnerships for development. This includes the establishment of a collaborative platform that involves various stakeholders to ensure that marginalised people have a voice in determining priority areas to achieve the goal of poverty eradication.
Recent events in South Africa make it clear how urgently this ideal must be realised.
During 2016 the country was characterised by protests over the delivery of basic services and higher education fees. These distress calls came against a backdrop of growing concern about “state capture” – the diversion of state resources to benefit an already privileged elite. The problem of state capture shows a public accountability deficit which the partnership aims to address.
South Africa’s end of term report highlights the country’s accountability challenges. This is particularly true in relation to its failure to implement and mainstream public service anti-corruption laws. The report shows that the country failed to fully complete any of its seven commitments. These were the establishment of:
an accountability/consequences management framework,
service delivery improvement forums,
platform for citizen participation in government,
environmental management information portal,
online crowd sourcing tool on data conservation,
schools connectivity project, and a service rights and responsibilities campaign.
The report also shows that, contrary to agreement, the government didn’t formally establish a forum to involve civil society organisations in the partnership process. It still has to set up a joint mechanism to monitor the implementation of government’s commitments.
South Africa cannot continue to place the burden of holding the government accountable on just the media and brave whistle blowers.
These shortcomings not withstanding, it was not all doom and gloom.
The government must be applauded for setting up a citizen-based pilot monitoring programme. This was set up to collect community feedback on public services.
What needs to be done
It is important that the lessons of the previous action plan be heeded as South Africa embarks on a new two-year national action plan. The focus here will be to link its partnership commitments with its development goals.
South Africa is now on its third two-year action plan which will run from 2016 to 2018. It includes a commitment – introduced by civil society – to establish community advice offices to promote access to justice. This fits in with goal 16 of the SDGs – to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.
Other commitments include citizen-based monitoring of service delivery projects and increasing public participation in government planning and budget processes. Another is to increase the level of civic participation in the provision of basic services.
These commitments require the sustained involvement of civil society. It is high time the South African government established a permanent dialogue mechanism that treats civil society bodies as equal partners. It also needs to develop ways of working more collaboratively so that it can make government work for all citizens.
It’s clear that the South African government recognises the importance of partnerships with civil society. But it stands accused of paying lip service to the idea of inclusivity. Indeed, the shrinking space for civil society in governance that is seen around the world is also evident in South Africa. The country’s civil society organisations are not seen as equal partners when it comes to accountability and governance.
For their part, South Africans need to re-imagine the role of civil society in the governance of their public services and management of their public resources. The partnership initiative offers that platform. But it needs to be implemented effectively and in the spirit of participation by ordinary people.