Ken Coghill on Paris: Open Government strikes back
Dr Ken Coghill a member of this Network and the Interim Working Group established by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet attended the OGP Paris Summit in December.
Threats to open government posed by political populism was a strong underlying concern permeating
the OGP Global Summit and its preceding Academic Days. The Brexit vote (23 rd June), Trump’s
election (8 th November) and defeat of the Italian constitutional referendum (4 th December), combined
with other examples of electoral support for populist politicians, parties and movements, weighed on
the minds of many leading speakers and other presenters.
Open government is directly counter to the rejection of evidence-based decision making that is
inherent in populism with its appeals to emotion and superficial policy responses. Whilst populism was
referred to by many participants, this was in a sense incidental and was not part of the formal
programme. I return to this in my concluding comment.
Australia’s 1 st NAP
Australia’s first National Action Plan (NAP) commitments were known to very few of the 4,000 or so
participants from at least 70 countries because it was submitted on the first day of the Summit.
However, the NAP was regarded, by those who had seen it, as one of the better first NAPs and better
than some countries’ second NAP.
NAPs are evaluated by an Independent Review Mechanism. These are taken seriously. At least
three countries are no longer OGP partners as a result of their failure to meet membership
Australia was represented by Senator Mathias Cormann (Minister for Finance; assisting the Prime
Minister on OGP), PMC support staff (Ryan Black, Naomi Perdomo and Caroline Yuan), John Edge
(Deputy Secretary, Dept. of Finance). Kat Szuminska (IWG & Network member), Jessie Cato
(Network member), and myself (IWG). Henare Degan (Open Australia Foundation) was an invited
participant at the Hackathon. Daniel Stewart (Australia National University) was present as an
independent Research Monitor, OGP Independent Review Mechanism. A number of other
Australians were present in different capacities. The Summit was at Hotel du Collectionneur and two
conference centres – Palais d’Iéna and Palais de Tokyo – close-by each other. The two Academic
Days were at Paris-Sorbonne University.
The Academic Days included good papers but were very crowded – many more participants than
planned for, too little time for too many presentations, and often fewer seats than people.
“Civil Society” Morning
The Summit Day 1 began with a “Civil Society” Morning. After Croissant Talks at round tables each
designated for a particular topic and then a plenary session, participants met in break-out rooms
according to topics they had pre-selected (within the theme OGP and its key processes); part way
through we swapped to another room according to our second preference of topic (within the theme
“deep dives” to crowdsource solutions on concrete challenges as well as plan collective action and
advocacy on various issues.) – a format that facilitated exchanges of views and ideas. There does not
seem to have been any system for capturing any outcomes.
The President of France performed the Official Opening. Seating was limited but it could be watched
on a big screen at another venue.
Day 2 panels and workshops
Day 2 was panels and workshops – translated into English/ French/ Spanish. The sessions each
focused on one or more particular commitment topics.
I attended the Legislative Openness sessions – morning at the National Assembly, afternoon at the
Senate. These tended to focus on monitoring MP conduct – more related to performance of
parliamentary duties than Australia’s recent entitlements issues! I argued for more focus on openness
to citizen engagement in legislating.
Separation of powers became an important issue in the lead-up to the Summit: i.e. the Executive
should not determine how the parliament participates in OGP as to do so is to reverse the proper
relationship between the two. According it is proposed that:
Parliaments in OGP countries that wish to develop open parliament commitments, should do
so either integrated as part of the official NAP or as a separate parliamentary chapter of the
official NAP (Legislative Openness Group).
Day 3 panels and workshops
Day 3 panels and workshops, like those on Day 2, ranged from highly technical (e.g. Accountable
Algorithms) to wider concerns such as Political Party Financing: transparency and oversight.
I was a Panellist in: Civic perspectives on OGP civil society and government collaboration
mechanisms. Panel members spoke very briefly to facilitate questions, comment and discussion. In
my comments I explained the progress made by civil society members of IWG in achieving more open
NAP commitments than initially proposed by government but also made clear that we had argued for
stronger commitments in some areas. The audience seemed to be largely people with a civil society
background rather than, for example, government. One interesting comment in personal conversation
with a Mongolian following the panel, asked why we needed to participate in OGP – believing that
Australia is already well-advanced in open government! I pointed to weaknesses addressed in our
That comment was redolent of OGP’s analysis of the effects of membership on governance. That
analysis suggests that the greatest benefits are to countries whose governments are in the mid-range
of implementing open government. Countries that already have highly developed systems of
government find that that often includes many well-developed open government policies and
practices. At the other end of the spectrum, countries with less developed systems of government
have greatest difficulty in implementing open government practices.
A hackathon in the central space in Palais d’Iéna was a very popular event.
Threat of populism
I left the Summit feeling that concerns about populism are well-placed but overly defensive. OGP
includes, or at least allows for citizen engagement with the potential to directly counter populist
appeals by giving them a way to influence decision-making beyond voting.
In Australia, there are great examples of participatory democracy and deliberative engagement,
particularly at local government level (there is a good article in the Australian Journal of Public
Administration December 2016) and also some state governments. Unfortunately, federal politicians
seem resistant. Internationally, several South American countries have extensive, successful
experience. Our network has potential to advocate these techniques as part of Australia’s NAP
Commitment 5.2: Enhance public participation in government decision making.
Australians (government and civil society personnel) can learn much from active participation in OGP
Summits – exchanging information, ideas and experiences with other countries that have addressed
similar issues differently and selected different commitments.
We could also provide leadership on OGP among Pacific nations. Within Australia, it is important that the Network maintains pressure for full implementation of the first round of commitments and development of the second NAP.