How Long Should Georgia's Civil Society Wait?
On the first Wednesday of every month, people from several Georgian civil society organizations, government ministries and state agencies, gather at the Ministry of Justice to make decisions and talk about Georgia’s participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP).
The OGP is a global initiative uniting 63 countries that have promised to make their governments more open, transparent and accountable by engaging and empowering citizens. Every two years, each of these countries must publish an action plan describing their commitments and aims. They must also name the government agencies that are responsible for the commitments and provide details about the milestones they intend to reach and the activities that will be included in the action plan. During this process the governments work closely with civil society and the wider public to improve the plan and to ensure that the activities are implemented effectively and are oriented towards citizens’ needs. In other words, governments and CSOs are working side-by-side within the framework of this initiative, and one of their main goals is to engage citizens in the process.
Georgia joined the OGP in 2011 and submitted its first action plan for 2012-2013. The country is currently working on its next action plan, which should be ready by the end of April and which will guide the government on its OGP path over the next two years.
Public participation is crucial in every stage of the OGP’s activities, but its importance is especially important at the Action Plan creation stage, since the action plan is meant to be created through close consultations with the wider public.
But how much do Georgians actually know about the OGP and the creation of its action plan in Georgia? Do they know that the new action plan is being created or that active public participation through public consultations is needed? Do they know that their opinions are (or should be) highly valued when designing the activities that the government will be committed to implement over the next two years?
If you Google ‘the Open Government Partnership’ in Georgian, even google cannot provide complete information about the OGP in Georgia. The information available on the web is incomplete and scattered across several unconnected websites, including a sub-section of the Ministry of Justice’s Analytical Department and the webpages of a few Georgian CSOs. How can anyone expect the public to participate in the process without being properly informed? And how can the public be informed effectively and encouraged to participate if the people in charge are not using the full potential of the web?
Georgian Civil Society Organizations have recommended that the government create a separate website dedicated solely to the OGP and its implementation in Georgia. The website would also provide a platform for online discussion of the action plan, the government’s commitments, draft laws, etc. If such a site were created, the OGP discussions would go beyond the Ministry of Justice’s Conference room, which are filled with only a few dozen people who gather every first Wednesday of the month to represent state agencies or select Georgian NGOs. A website could play a big role, not only in informing about and coordinating the processes around OGP, but also in encouraging wider audiences to engage and participate by giving them the means to do that. That way everyone, a teacher, a student, a doctor, a pensioner or anyone else, would have the opportunity to have a say in the way their country is to become more open, transparent, and accountable.
However, the Georgian government claims that it is too difficult to create an OGP website in a short period of time. While the Prime Minister’s office is being restructured, there is still no person appointed responsible for OGP, which means that there is no one person authorized to make decisions and coordinate its implementation. It is still unknown when this person will be appointed or when the website will be launched, but it is unlikely to happen before April this year, when the 2014-2015 Action Plan will be ready and it will be too late for public consultation.
To fill this gap and provide the public with information and a platform to engage, Georgian civil society considered creating a website itself, timely and efficiently, without any bureaucratic obstacles. However, the initiative was not carried through because many believed that it is the Government’s responsibility to create and administer an OGP website, and that it would free the government from responsibility and make it less committed, less responsible and, plainly speaking, more lazy, if the CSOs take the lead and create the website themselves.
Meanwhile, processes are ongoing: state agencies are declaring their commitments, a new Freedom of Information Act is being drafted, an Action Plan for 2014-2015 is being completed, and public consultations are soon to be scheduled. However, there is still no simple, online platform to inform society about all these activities, because the government claims it does not have time to create an OGP-dedicated website and civil society does not want to do the government’s job.
However, if it harms the process and deprives society of a very important tool for engagement and participation, how long should civil society wait before taking responsibility itself?