South Africa, with the other seven founding members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), this week celebrated the initiative’s fifth anniversary.

The OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform that enables domestic reformers to make their governments more open, accountable, responsive to citizens, and corruption-free. Since then, the OGP has grown from the eight founding countries of Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, the UK and the US, to 70 countries. Participation is voluntary, and in all of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms.

OGP countries work to a series of two-year national action plans, which task governments with working on various commitments. The national plans must advance one or more of the OGP principles of transparency, accountability, participation, and technology and innovation.

The aim is for the OGP to move to an era of implementation in its next five years of existence, where it should make a real difference in people’s lives. Implementation, however, is known to be the point at which progressive policymaking often fails, and lack of coordination between the various agencies and departments working on a specific commitment contributes to the situation.

Having reached the milestone, says the Open Democracy and Advice Centre (Odac), the question arises: how to keep making sure the OGP is effective? Odac believes part of the answer to that initial question lies in answering another: what can be done to get government departments coordinating on the OGP to make its projects a reality?

A new report released by the organisation examines the situation in the South African context. Titled Connecting the Dots: The coordination challenge for the Open Government Partnership in SA, the report was written by Gabriella Razzano of Odac, with the financial support of Making All Voices Count.

Odac’s research, the organisation says, “seeks to address specifically how implementation might be improved, through enhancing inter-departmental coordination on open data commitments.”

Download the report.

Achieving common goals

At its simplest, inter-departmental coordination aims to coordinate different agencies towards achieving common goals. This is seen as beneficial, as it improves service delivery, reduces expenditures, and ensures inter-sectoral responses to inter-sectoral problems.

The problem with coordination in the public sector is that it is potentially complicated by the powerful social and political forces at play, which may influence how specific groups coordinate.

Many of the problems stem from the very nature of organisations themselves. Previous research has identified some of them as:

  • Each agency seeks to preserve its autonomy and independence;
  • organisational routines and procedures are difficult to synchronise and coordinate;
  • organisational goals differ among collaborating agencies;
  • constituents bring different expectation and pressure to bear on each agency.

These are at heart problems of power, says Odac. The fact that organisations seem to resist coordination is not entirely surprising, given that organisations are comprised of individuals, and power has direct behavioural impacts on individual agents within organisations.

But more than the behavioural issues, there are also structural (political factors, policy issues, organisational issues) inhibitors to policy integration. These, however, can present opportunities for improving coordination in similar areas.

Getting everyone to work together

In the current OGP environment for inter-departmental coordination, governments typically elect a lead agency to coordinate the OGP process, and individual lead agencies to implement specific commitments. In South Africa, the lead agency for the OGP is the Department of Public Services and Administration (DPSA). This department works with numerous other entities, such as the Innovation Hub, Government Communication and Information System, and Department of Trade and Industry.

Odac’s research revealed a pattern that seems to confirm that domestic contextual factors heavily influence the potential implementation and coordination of the OGP. Its recommended interventions are seen in the table below, with explanations further on:

  • Specific budget
  • Permanent dialogue mechanism (PDM)
  • Lead Agency: Coordinator (including communications) and driver of shared goals
  • Training
  • Goal identification
  • Communication
  • Specific budget
  • Knowledge communities
  • Open data policy
  • Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) for evaluation
  • Signed commitments by implicated departments
  • Knowledge communities
  • Training (laws)
  • Performance evaluation
  • Communication

OGP Process/Structural

  • Specific budget – a specific budget should be allocated to the lead agency to facilitate coordination between departments. The financing of this may be made simpler if a PDM is established, as funds could be directly allocated.
  • PDM – this would incorporate departments that already have strong coordination and planning roles to play, such as the Department of Cooperative Governance, and the Department of Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation. From a political perspective, the Presidency could be included as well. To include the concerns raised about driving policy, the National Planning Commission could also be represented. To ensure data consistency, Statistics South Africa (StatSA) could also play a role.
  • Lead agency – the lead agency should be encouraged to move from a ‘lead’ role, to focusing on coordination as one of its primary functions.

OGP Commitment Implementation/Structural

  • Specific budget – specific budgets could be allocated for the fulfilment of joint projects between departments. These joint funds will encourage coordination, but more importantly, implementing projects that stretch government practice beyond its current baseline. This would necessarily mean involving the National Treasury.
  • Knowledge communities – rather than relying on the PDM as the key structure for coordination on specific commitments, knowledge communities should be developed around specific topics, and encouraged to meet more regularly than the PDM.
  • Open data policy – in relation to open data activities specifically, a central open data policy should be developed that encourages government actors to release data in standard formats (and with standard schema etc.), and empowers them within the legal framework. This is necessary for creating an enabling environment for open data commitments.
  • DPME – this department has a management performance assessment tool. The DPME could potentially be encouraged to include specific OGP projects and programmes, which are included in the commitments, as key performance areas for assigned departments.

OGP Process/Individual

  • Training – should be conducted for actors within the PDM, on the goals and values of the OGP as well as on tools and strategies for coordination. This should ideally be driven by the DPSA as lead agency.
  • Goal identification – agents and officials involved in the OGP should be encouraged to consider the OGP as encapsulating multiple objectives. In order to drive the importance of open data, such data should be contextualised in its relationship to the advancement of accountability.
  • Communication – should be regularly encouraged through e-mail and face-to-face meetings, and attendance should be regular to maintain the efficacy of the PDM, or any alternative structures established for the advancement of the OGP.

OGP Commitment Implementation/Individual

  • Signed commitments by implicated departments – one of the most direct and practical mechanisms for ensuring a degree of buy-in is to ensure that departments and specific actors or agencies implicated in commitments in any significant capacity sign acknowledgement of the commitments, which are then submitted to the OGP. These signatures would merely be acknowledgements of the content, and not contractual undertakings for fulfilment.
  • Training – should be conducted for actors within the different knowledge communities on the goals and values of the OGP, as well as on tools for fulfilment of the commitments, and any specific legal concerns.
  • Performance evaluation – implicated departments and agents could have their OGP commitments incorporated into their annual performance management framework.

The OGP process in South Africa has demonstrated a notable lack of emphasis on getting departments and agencies to work together, says Odac – whether on the OGP process itself, or in relation to the implementation of specific commitments. It is clear that coordination does not happen automatically. In fact, research seems to suggest that coordination may usually require intervention to work. Since it is difficult to get coordination to work well, it should only be focused on when it is an essential condition for achieving a development goal.

The South African context can learn much from the global lessons on coordination, which demonstrate that both structural and individual factors have a reflexive influence on one another; the importance of driving interpersonal connections among agents should never be overlooked.

Furthermore, changing the role of the lead agency to perform more of a coordination function could have a remarkable impact on furthering the OGP’s open data agenda.