Is OGP vouching for Hungary?

Viktor Orban, currently serving in his third term as Prime Minister of Hungary, during the 2014 elections. Image credit: Szilard Koszticsak, MTI

Celebrating its third anniversary a few weeks ago, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) has come a huge way, with the initial eight founding countries expanding to 65 participating nations. The explosive growth demonstrates a strong appetite — especially from the public — for making governments more accessible, and is evidence that OGP is a platform that has the potential to offer an incentive structure that “encourages countries to experiment with innovation and race to the top.”

As time goes by, however, the limitations and challenges of OGP are becoming much clearer too. And so are its dangers. One of these is especially striking after a careful read of this outcome statement, a result of the High-Level Event held at the United Nations in late September.

OGP announced country pledges that offer peer-to-peer learning opportunities, both from governments and civil society. This is, in itself, an encouraging sign, as it demonstrates continued involvement from participating countries in the initiative. However, taking a look at the list of countries pledging support to their peers leaves us with some serious doubts.

The fact that Hungary is among one of the countries offering “valuable experience” in “increasing public integrity in public administration” is surreal, to say the least. We don’t need to be Hungarian citizens (as, in full disclosure, the author of this post is), to be aware that the government of Hungary is by no means a champion of democracy. At least not in the good sense.

Taking a look at the more detailed description of the their offer of assistance is even more disturbing, though: “The National University of Public Service has developed curricula for teaching public ethics, anti-corruption and integrity.”

Just a reminder, the very same administration that is now offering to help “change people’s attitude towards corruption” — through its own scandal-ridden educational establishment — is the one that systematically disabled democratic control mechanisms by making amendments to all significant Hungarian laws and rewriting the country’s constitution, launching an attack against independent watchdog institutions, the free press and civil society. And, probably most importantly, by creating a whole new dimension in state capture and grand-scale political corruption.

This is just one of the many governments offering its “valuable experience” — one that we happen to know a bit better and thus feel more entitled to criticize heavily. What about the rest? It is one thing to accept voluntary commitments from different administrations, and it’s another thing to say that a highly anti-democratic government should teach other countries’ public officials on how to increase public integrity or fight corruption.

Is OGP vouching for Hungary’s ability to strengthen democracies, even as it clearly works to undermine its own?

Beyond those important tensions within OGP, though, we need to think ahead as well: Is OGP really in the position to judge what real openness is? Probably not. It might even be counter-productive, as OGP’s judgements may well be seen as imperialistic and arbitrary. So should OGP rely more on what its civil society members have to say about their own governments? Most definitely yes — especially given the unanimous backing from the transparency donor community, one that has slowly turned OGP into an inescapable point of reference for all of us working in the open government space.

That said, the real task here is not for OGP, nor the donor community. The real task is for us: civil society organizations and citizens at large. It is precisely our job to find better and more sophisticated ways to judge our own governments, and to be able to tell meaningful openness from fake transparency. We are the ones who need to better distinguish between the performance of government institutions within the same administration — and sometimes even between the different levels of the same institution — and tell what those different layers mean for the bigger picture of our societies. We should keep creating indexes and comparative studies on a wide range of topics from budgets, parliaments, procurements, aid, revenues, lobbying, campaign contributions, etc., but in order to keep our long-term credibility, we might eventually need to look beyond those indexes to find more powerful ways to tell these complicated narratives.

Constructing positive incentives is clearly an important part of catalyzing government reform internationally. It’s incumbent on all of us, though, to be sure that we keep our eyes wide open about what governments are doing — and whether we’re moving forward or backward.