The civil society steering committee members of the global Open Government Partnership have issued a statement on COVID and its risks to open government.

We have added our support to the statement. Head over to the OGP website to add yours.

Sign the statement

The world finds itself at a crossroad. We can either address this pandemic in a way that protects or even revives trust, democracy, open and inclusive governance — or we can ignore them and expect a deeper erosion of open governance, one that would be very hard to reverse.

Statement on the COVID-19 response

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a global state of emergency, rapidly overburdening governments. Public institutions are under pressure as never before. Protecting lives and livelihoods, sustaining health-care systems and the resetting the economy have rightly become the most pressing priorities for the foreseeable future.

Yet another priority needs to be front and centre: the protection of open, inclusive and accountable governance, with democratic standards and personal rights.

A state of emergency such as this pandemic requires extraordinary measures.

In many cases, these measures have been proportionate and justified. However, in several instances there has been weakening of parliamentary oversight and other vital checks and balances, removal of key watchdog officials, aggressive censorship and pressure on journalists, and the introduction of intrusive and potentially permanent digital surveillance regimes. Many interventions appear to go beyond what is necessary for health and safety, even in a pandemic. And in some instances, measures have been introduced without any clarity on when or how they will be rolled back.

Prior to Covid-19 democracy was already at risk, with trust in government at ever lower levels and civic space under attack. A crisis of this magnitude further threatens democracy through increased political repression, overly zealous strengthening of executive power, and increased corruption.

We have already seen that governments that suppress facts, remove oversight and silence critical voices can escalate the crises and increase hardships. On the contrary, open, honest and inclusive governments are leveraging collective knowledge to improve critical services and create a shared sense of responsibility. This approach creates trust in government actions and empowers citizens to be active participants in the response and recovery.

The world finds itself at a crossroad. We can either address this pandemic in a way that protects or even revives trust, democracy, open and inclusive governance — or we can ignore them and expect a deeper erosion of open governance, one that would be very hard to reverse.

To promote the values that define democracy, we call on governments to undertake the following:

  1. Secure the independent role of parliaments. Take all possible measures to ensure that parliaments continue to function, that they are engaged in and fully consulted on decisions about the pandemic response, and that they are fully able to play their oversight and control functions;
  2. Ensure participatory collaboration and oversight. Establish specific, sectoral, participatory mechanisms to draw on the expertise in society and to ensure oversight of decisions affecting health care, rights and freedoms, and the emergency allocation of resources and funds, including short-term response and recovery packages;
  3. Proactively publish information and data on the coronavirus situation. Publish situational data, analytical models, scientific findings, and reports used in decision making and justifications of decisions. Develop specific proactive publication and open data plans to address the information needs of the public, media, academia, and civil society during the pandemic.
  4. Make all emergency public procurement transparent. Ensure that information on pandemic response procurement, including emergency procurement, is made public as soon as reasonably possible, preferably on a centralised portal and as open data. Ensure that company registration data is available so that investigative journalists and civil society watchdogs can play their role in exposing fraud and corruption.
  5. Allow all stakeholders to follow the public money. Ensure enhanced transparency of public funds related to all dimensions of the pandemic response, including the spending and recovery packages. Structure participatory debate with all sectors of society and business over economic measures.
  6. Maintain access to information laws. Take specific measures to maintain the functioning of access to information laws and timeframes for responding during the crisis. Where official capacity is limited, prioritise requests related to the current situation, either answering requests and/or proactively publishing responses to requests on a dedicated website.
  7. Guarantee and respect freedom of expression. Uphold media freedoms and the rights of journalists to seek and disseminate information, including the freedom of movement of journalists. The free flow of information, including on the internet, should be protected, and any measures to counter false information should be done in ways that do not limit free speech.
  8. Strengthen whistleblower protections. Commit to protecting whistleblowers who come forward in the public interest to expose problems, shortages, fraud, and corruption in public procurement and in the use of funds dedicated to pandemic responses;
  9. Protect privacy in all tracking. Ensure that any digital tracking and surveillance used to protect health is time-bound and periodically reviewed, is subject to continuous specialist and civil society oversight to protect privacy, and that there is full transparency on use of the data.
  10. Sustain ongoing Open Government Partnership processes. It is absolutely essential to maintain, to the extent possible, ongoing initiatives to secure and advance open government. Should there be a need to restructure Action Plans in line with the priorities outlined above, this should always be done after full consultation with civil society.

We call upon inter-governmental organisations to:

  1. Keep track and raise red flags. It is critical to monitor developments in the realm of governance and democracy, and to point to setbacks that are disproportionate to the crisis.
  2. Find the resources. Secure and mobilise resources to ensure swift and unequivocal responses to protect human rights and democratic standards, including civic space, freedom of expression, and open government.
  3. Pursue multilateralism and collaboration mechanisms. When it comes to lives, livelihoods, democracy, and economic rebuilding, begin a race to the top that lifts the many.

We call upon donors to:

  1. Make funding matter: While responding to the needs created by the pandemic, boost efforts to protect the core pillars of open and democratic societies. This should include supporting civil society organisations and investigative journalists working on transparency, the right of access to information, open data, freedom of expression, anti-corruption, and participation.

It is only by defending and strengthening open government that, during the response and recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, we will be able to revitalise global democracy and bring about more just, equal and cohesive societies.

This statement was originally published on the Open Government Partnership site. See the statement and full list of signatories here.

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash