Political language and political action: an OGP lesson for South Africa

Posted in Blog

-By Gabriella Razzano

At ODAC, we believe in reflecting and learning – not just in relation to the broader environment, but also in relation to our own work. And following on from the eventful SONA2017, and continuing domestic and international discussions on “political truth”, now is an apt time to reflect on one of our most recent (and simple) learning’s in relation to our Making All Voices Count project on the Open Government Partnership (OGP): South African politics in this year of internal electioneering will mean civil society should rethink its approach to participating in the OGP.

The current broader political climate does not of course detract from how vital the fight for transparency and good governance is. ODAC believes that the OGP is still a vital platform for leveraging these goals in South Africa. What we are reconsidering, however, is how we approach it. ODAC have championed the OGP since its inception in 2011. But difficulties we experienced in implementing a Making All Voices Count project on the issue last year has very real lessons for us all.

The idea behind the project was fairly simple: the OGP can help civil society forward their existing work on transparency, therefore getting civil society engaged on the OGP will lead to better collaboration with government, and better transparency outcomes. In our monitoring and evaluation framework though, we noted that a fundamental assumption was that OGP was not just a “talk shop”. Yet, we have struggled to maintain interest in the OGP from a broader group. As a colleague from civil society of mine poignantly pointed out when we were discussing how to get civil society more involved in the OGP in South Africa:

Civil society cannot maintain enthusiasm in a process when it appears there is all talk, and no action. The political talk around the OGP, while always positive in tone from government, does not seem to be accompanied by strong action and outcomes. Civil society partners then can’t bring themselves to commit to a process that won’t take forward the core of their work. One is reminded of George Orwell’s words on political language: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind”.

But the truth is that there have definitely been examples of collaborations between civil society and government on specific OGP commitments in South Africa that can be viewed as successful (the partnership between Code for South Africa and National Treasury on “Municipal Money” project comes to mind).

So we know broader civil society are not getting invested because political language clouds inaction. Yet, some groups are seeing collaboration on OGP working – what’s the difference? Our research on government coordination on OGP (again a result of support from Making All Voices Count and the Institute of Development Studies) holds a very succinct answer: coordination will only happen when there is a direct benefit to both parties to coordinate, or otherwise its just extra work.

Government and civil society will coordinate on OGP projects, when those projects are not just a talking opportunity, but they instead take forward real transparency agendas for all those concerned. We should not be distracted by empty political rhetoric, but instead seek out the many partners within government taking action on transparency, in alignment with the OGP, in very real ways. We just need to rethink our approach. After all, another very quotable thinker Plato noted it best: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.