Full steam ahead!

By Cath Candish

So it’s here. The long awaited Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit has finally arrived, and I am sitting in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London. There’s something of the cruise ship about this building.

Its grey angular body juts aggressively into the elegant Westminster landscape. But once inside, smooth lines, space and light make it the ideal place for a conference; not least one that could be about turning a ship around – or a fleet of ships – for that would seem the challenge of the OGP.  It’s the challenge of how to engineer the tough turn-around from a default compass setting of ‘information is power and closed government is the way forward’, to instead set sail and make for the fresh winds of public scrutiny, engagement and open government.

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‘Transparency is an idea whose time has come’, was Francis Maude’s much quoted phrase today at the OGP, but even though transparency is increasingly protected in law, there is nothing inexorable about its progress. The OGP aims to help governments inspire one another through the tough process of reform. Turning those government ships around is going to take time and commitment.

Now is the time, but is there the commitment, especially as the G20 looms on next year’s horizon?

Britain, the host of this year’s summit, can be seen as Admiral of the fleet. This morning David Cameron announced to us that a central register of company beneficial ownership will be made open and accessible to the public. This is real progress, that if properly implemented, forces shell company beneficiaries out of the shadows. But as the British Government knows well, the work doesn’t end here.

One of the first places to start is the budget. Tearfund would like to see OGP member countries join the fiscal transparency working group, to agree together on how to make year on year progress towards greater fiscal openness.  Because, Tearfund has found that once the process of fiscal transparency begins, people develop an expectation that goes beyond budgets. They want to know more information and have more say about more policies, how they are made and implemented. 

I care about all this because I have seen with my own eyes that corruption is indeed a deadly disease that breeds poverty: the desperate ingrained kind; conflict: the protracted complex kind; and hopelessness: breeding the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ approach. But this disease is preventable: ‘Transparency’, as one Mexican participant famously said, ‘is like a vaccination against corruption’.

What does it say to the rest of the world, that the OGP was started by a handful of countries, including US and UK? Some say they prefer to seek African solutions to African problems. But corruption is not an African problem as much as it is a global one; the globalisation process has deepened, entrenched, and tossed it around into ever more complex international waters.

It will take a global solution, and a host of local ones, to turn these ships around. The question remains as to whether the UK will lead the fleet on to the G20 next year, encouraging other members to follow our example. Will we continue the momentum of progress made this year into the next, or will we cast adrift on a raft of our own complacency? Full steam ahead!

 

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