Profile incoming chair Rakesh Rajani: Let’s make it happen!

rakesh-rajani“Whether OGP will succeed or fail depends on what we do with it. It is a platform for bringing together a world of greater openness. It is a platform for government accountability, budget transparency and citizen engagement in policy making. It is a platform that groups can use to follow their agenda,” says Rakesh Rajani (Twaweza, Tanzania), incoming Lead Civil Society Chair of the OGP.

Emphasising the common ownership of the OGP, and common responsibility for its success or failure, Rajani says: “If the ideas and aspirations of OGP seem worthwhile, then let’s make it happen. It’s ours.”

He argues that the unprecedented equal standing and voting power of civil society and governments in the OGP Steering Committee provide civil society with a strategic opportunity to participate equally in open governance agenda-setting.

Rajani believes it is up to the groups involved in OGP, both state and civil society, to translate and localise the language of open governance.

“It is up to all of us to make the language of OGP accessible. It was cobbled together by a group of people. It is not written in ‘UNese’. The key document that governments are required to sign up to is only one-and-a-half pages long. We need to ensure all OGP material is accessible,” he says.

Referring to the OGP’s eligibility criteria, Rajani acknowledges that it is difficult to have one set of global criteria, and points out that the existing OGP criteria are low. “We have come up with a minimum set of criteria. You need to show that you have a few basic things in place. Then you can come through the door. Once in the door, we aim for stretch through the action plan and programme implementation. We need to first acknowledge where we are. Then we need to move the needle further,” says Rajani.

Turning his attention to his home country, Tanzania, Rajani admits that progress has been limited: “OGP is one more thing – worthwhile and interesting – but that is added to an already overburdened bureaucracy. There are only so many reforms one can take on and do well. There is not a huge groundswell of support inside the middle and lower levels of government for OGP.

While OGP is being championed by the President, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and the Chief Secretary, the tough challenge is that this high level of political commitment and priority has not sufficiently filtered through to those “responsible for the rubber hitting the road, for making things happen.” Rajani’s comment reflects an ongoing global debate about the most appropriate ministry or government department for housing and leading national-level OGP efforts.

For some, OGP being located in the President’s Office is a sign of the high-level importance accorded to OGP. For others, OGP should be located within an implementing arm of government such as a ministry dealing with public services or fiscal reform and accountability.

Rajani believes that one of OGP’s most notable achievements in its short lifespan has been its contribution to shifting discourses on open governance globally. “The OGP has been one more force in civil society to shift the needle on what is the norm,” says Rajani, referring to the fact that in many parts of the world, the question is no longer whether the state should be accountable to citizens or transparent in its dealings. The validity of open governance principles is no longer under question. That battle has already been won.

“The challenge is implementation. There have been some clear successes. In Brazil there is a new right to information regime in place, which is unlikely to have happened without OGP. In Tanzania we have data available online about water points, partly because of OGP. This means that those of us interested in water being available for people in poor communities have something we can work with,” he says.

Referring to OGP’s detractors, he says: “If I were asked to list the limitations of OGP, I could spend a lot of energy complaining about how OGP has failed. But I won’t do that. OGP is not even two years old. Change takes time. I’m not interested in spending energy on what’s not been done. I prefer a more pragmatic approach, focusing on the opportunities to make change. If OGP allows us to do stuff, let’s do it.”

His message to civil society organisations going forward? “The responsibility for making the entire endeavour one that is of use is up to us. … [I]t’s a platform for bringing together people and ideas that seek out a world in which there is greater openness; greater transparency for citizens; in which governments are expected to function in a manner that is more open to their own citizens … I want to focus on what one can make work. And that pragmatic perspective is what I would recommend we do with the OGP.”

Sarita Ranchod spoke with the new civil society lead co-chair Rakesh Rajani.