Of Tow Trucks and Building Data: Georgian Government Pays Lip Service to Open Government
Last week, the Ministry of Justice, the agency tasked with elaborating and implementing the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Georgia, hosted the latest in a series of civil society-oriented meetings to discuss the first draft of the second action plan it prepared for the OGP. Despite lasting over three hours, it is not clear what we can take away from the meeting. The only conclusion that stands out is, after much polite and tactful deliberation, that the Emergency Service’s decision to add tow trucks to the assortment of tools at its disposal was not the most appropriate item for the OGP action plan.
This highlights a much larger issue surrounding how the Georgian government is implementing the OGP. The Chancellery, the office of the prime minister and ministers, has not empowered the Ministry of Justice to take leadership. Consequently, the MoJ has failed to work with public agencies to educate them about what open government and open data mean and why they should participate in the OGP. This is evident in the Ministry’s oft-cited response that what civil society is asking for is not within their competency to implement. In our opinion, for the OGP to work, it should not be a choice. The Chancellery should make participation in the OGP mandatory and publicly set the tone for inter-agency cooperation, just as U.S. president Obama did at the beginning of his first term. Since former prime minister Ivanishvili resigned his position, the new government has not taken any steps to publicly and boldly support the initiatives of the OGP.
Of the commitments the Ministry of Justice included in the action plan, several, like the tow truck debacle, were irrelevant. What is clear from this is that the agencies which are submitting ideas have no idea what the OGP initiative is about and the Ministry of Justice has done little to inform them. This, in our view, is indicative of the fact that either the Chancellery has not empowered the Ministry to implement the OGP or that the Ministry simply has little will to do so. Moreover, the implementation of iChange.ge, an official petition mechanism by which the public can, by gathering enough signatures, demand an official response from the government regarding important issues, was not originally included. Instead, it was added hastily during the meeting. Oddly, iChange.ge is one of the commitments that civil society and civil soceity organizations have been most vocal about adopting and was included in the first action plan but never implemented.
On a positive note, the addition of a new law on freedom of information that provides a stronger legal framework for what information is and is not public and how we can access this public information is both needed and welcomed. For example, this week we received a response to our freedom of information request to the National Agency of Public Registry for geographic information about addresses and buildings, data which they have and are constantly updating. The Agency denied our request saying that that information is only accessible free of charge to other public agencies.
At best, the Georgian government’s stance on open data and the Open Government Partnership is decidedly inconsistent. The agency’s response is just one example of how the implementation of the OGP and its spirit remains little more than lip service in Georgia. The abovementioned data should, of course, be public, and we should have access to it. This is the same agency that signed a memorandum of understanding with us in 2009-2010 to share data for our mapping project.
Georgia has an excellent chance of becoming a steering committee member for the OGP this year. However, we should point out that the underlying activities and success of Georgia within the framework of the OGP are a result of the initial action plan which the previous government, headed by the United National Movement, created and implemented, with varying degrees of success. It remains to be seen whether the current government is willing to make commitments that are actually relevant to the OGP and that take into account what civil society is requesting.
At the beginning of the meeting, a representative from Transparency International Georgia requested to present the findings of a recent study that measures the openness of government agencies by a set of clear criteria. Unfortunately, he was informed that there was not enough time to discuss the study. Perhaps he should have asked to discuss tow trucks instead.