South Africa’s commitment to governance reform: An inconvenient truth

Photo © HonestReporting/ Flickr

Partnerships between government and civil society organisations (CSOs) can be volatile if not adequately nurtured, leading to mutual suspicion and questioning each other’s agendas.

CSOs in South Africa have recently expressed dissatisfaction about the lack of consultation and implementation of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is a voluntary international initiative where government and CSOs work together to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. The OGP will reflect on its first five years in New York on 21-22 September 2016 and the stakes are high for South Africa to lead by example and yield tangible results as a founding member and current Chair.

The OGP was launched in 2011 to make governments more open, transparent, inclusive and responsive to their citizens. Since inception, it has grown from eight to an impressive 70 countries. Member states have collectively made over 2,250 commitments to increase transparency and accountability.

South Africa will present its country self-assessment report in December 2016 at the OGP Global Summit in Paris. Its findings will be scrutinised against the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) report ─ a biennial review produced by unaffiliated researchers to assess progress against commitments in National Action Plans.

When South Africa assumed the OGP leadership role in 2015, its own mixed progress in implementing the process at home came to the fore. On paper, the country appeared dedicated to working seriously and sincerely towards an open and participatory government. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa stated as much at the 2015 Global Summit in Mexico: ‘We reaffirm our commitment to continue fostering and promoting the culture of open government that empowers its citizens and puts them at the centre of sustainable development’. However, in practice, the OGP was less successful locally than it could have been.

Some government departments were already working well with their civil society partners before the OGP, such as the National Treasury on open budgeting and the Department of Environmental Affairs on the environmental commitments of the National Action Plan (NAP). But on the whole, civil society is frustrated with implementation. According to the 2013-2014 South Africa progress report, three commitments were behind schedule: accountability management frameworks, service delivery improvement forums and mainstreaming citizen participation in the public sector.

On 4-5 July 2016, the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) – which drives the OGP in South Africa – hosted a National Coordination and Networking Forum meeting for government and CSOs. ‘After intense criticism of the manner in which the plan was drawn up, the South African government wants to involve CSOs in the implementation of the plan and is engaging them in discussion of a permanent OGP stakeholder forum’ said David Lewis, head of Corruption Watch.

Despite its flaws, there have been some positive initiatives that the OGP has brought to South Africa. It is unlikely that South Africa would have had an operating data portal on government information without the OGP, for instance. But the inconvenient truth is that most of South Africa’s commitments involve activities that do not stretch government beyond what existed prior to joining the OGP. This makes the reviewing progress difficult and it is also a challenge to justify the relevance of the OGP. For example, the commitment on the Back to Basics Programme – a development plan aimed at strengthening local government by getting basic rights for all – was already being addressed and implemented as shown by the 2009 and 2014 reports of the Presidential Local Government Summit. Laudable as these initiatives are they raise questions about whether the OGP represents a sincere desire by the government to push the reform envelope or if it is a technical exercise to be used as a foreign policy tool.

If South Africa is to make real progress in this process, it will have to honestly address the way in which it is being implemented locally and not only focus on external compliance. For example, the operating terms of the OGP process clearly state that civil society should be fully engaged in all aspects. However, this does not translate to operations on the ground; as it stands the partnership has not had the required permanent multi-stakeholder public dialogue mechanism which has affected the way in which the NAP was put together – exclusively by government. Most attempts by government to include CSOs in OGP consultative initiatives have been ad hoc and insufficiently inclusive to reach a broad range of civil society and the public. Government officials say that the two sides still need to ‘find each other’ on the OGP, and work on what ‘partnership’ and ‘consultation’ really entail.

‘South Africa has a large, organised civil society. While government has made efforts to engage ordinary citizens on OGP issues, engagement with civil society has been lacking’ noted the IRM 2013-2014 Report. According to the Open Democracy Advice Centre ─ a Cape Town-based CSO working on transparency and access to information issues ─ this lack of inclusivity may be because the OGP focuses on high-level and aspirational commitments which many do not fully understand or view as attainable.

This exclusion has undermined the principles of the partnership and distorted the notion of accountability. But not all is lost. Moving forward, the initiative needs to prioritise a quality partnership in which CSOs are included and engaged meaningfully. A permanent consultation mechanism is a good way to ensure the creation of a representative framework that informs the NAP. Furthermore, each commitment should clearly reflect advancement of open government principles such as transparency, accountability, participation, technology and innovation. South Africa can and should demonstrate best practice at home and convey the same proactive spirit as it has abroad.