My Remarks at the OGP Global Summit Opening Plenary (Ottawa May 2019)

[As delivered]

Distinguished guests and friends...

I’m truly honored and humbled to stand before you this evening and to serve as one of OGP’s civil society co-chairs. I consider so many of you as teachers and mentors; I thus have very little to share with you that you don’t already know.

Let me instead tell you why I came to the OGP family in 2010.

I've spent my career in the social change business wearing three distinct hats at different moments: first as an investigative journalist, then working alongside diplomats in my country’s foreign ministry, and finally leading civil society organizations for the past fifteen years. As a reporter I exposed official wrong doing and abuses of power; it was through the power of confrontation with government that we successfully affected change. In the diplomatic world things were quite the opposite; instead of confrontation, we embraced negotiation as the norm, seeking compromise whenever possible to advance interests. And now in more recent years, particularly through OGP, we have collectively sought to embrace co-creation as the standard for how change happens between government and civil society.

I believe deeply in the power of co-creation. But its track record remains mixed.

As OGP’s own Independent Reporting Mechanism has demonstrated through countless reports and analyses, the bulk of the action plans produced through OGP co-creation are mediocre in terms of their ambition, scope, and eventual impact. Many fail to solve for actual problems faced by citizens and their communities.

A number of other studies paint a similarly muddled picture. My colleagues at Results for Development recently partnered with Harvard University to explore whether and how citizen-led accountability efforts mattered for improving maternal and newborn health outcomes. The work led to a stark conclusion: those social actions had no impact on babies’ birth weights or a mother’s chance for surviving childbirth.

As a community, we have a poor track record of predicting when and how open government reforms might matter for the lives of ordinary citizens. And solving for that untapped potential is what this summit is all about, in my view. It’s about improving that track record by bringing more voices and diverse perspective into the work.

Friends, the reason why we are emphasizing gender and inclusion so much this week is not because we are trying to reflect the current #MeToo zeitgeist. It’s not because we’re trying to win a contest for which international movement is more “woke.” It’s not about photo ops or taglines or hashtags. Instead, it’s about doing the job of opening up government better and holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard of impact. Put simply, more inclusive open government is better open government.

We continue to miss the mark on opening up government because of who is at the table designing, executing, and ultimately benefiting from those reforms. Inclusion matters for OGP because it is the bridge to truer co-creation, one where all citizen voices have a place in the debate, not just privileged voices. We know that when women and girls are empowered to make public sector decisions in almost any context, smarter and more equitable outcomes emerge. This is why Côte d’Ivoire committed through OGP to engage women’s groups for participatory budgeting to set priorities and fund public services that better respond to their needs. It’s also why the city of Buenos Aires created an online platform that details locations and services of local clinics and health centers to help close the gap in access to reproductive health services.

I realize this all might sound a bit funny or even disingenuous coming from a privileged white guy. But I’ll show you a little trick that helps to make the point.

[puts on yarmulke]

When I put this yarmulke on, I instantaneously transform from privileged white guy to a member of one of the most persecuted minorities in the history of the world: I’m Jewish. This simple piece of cloth has the power to transform me from being a member of a dominant group to being an outsider, to being different and not fitting in, to having others judge me without knowing me.

None of us are simple categories or labels. I am not just white, or male, or straight, or middle-aged, or Jewish. I am all of those things and many more. And so are all of you.

So, when we decide who to invite to our co-creation processes, which reforms we prioritize for investment, and how we track and monitor those efforts, we have to put people with all of their complexities at the center of those decisions. Making open government truly inclusive isn’t just about having an equal number of men and women in a meeting, or empowering representatives from a certain ethnic or religious group to make a decision, or ticking the box around having an LGBTQ+ member of cabinet or the legislature. It’s about valuing all of our neighbors for their whole selves, intentionally bringing less usual suspects into the conversation. In so doing, we can design more ambitious and far-reaching reforms that touch communities in ways narrow technocratic efforts never will.

I’m going to keep wearing this yarmulke throughout the summit as a reminder that inclusion matters for opening government. I hope you’ll put on your proverbial yarmulke too throughout our days here together in Ottawa – what makes you different and unique is what makes open government stronger. We are stronger when there are more of us who look, think, feel, and do things differently. Diversity and inclusion are open government’s secret weapon – they are the path towards a truly broad-based coalition to push back on the would-be autocrats in too many of our countries.

This shift towards a more inclusive open government community begins this week but will take many years to reach critical mass. The number of reform commitments made through OGP that are focused on women and gender issues, for example, remains at a shockingly low 2%, with only 13% of that 2% deemed potentially transformative. That is nowhere near good enough.

Inclusive co-creation also requires good faith on all sides. I want to call attention to the fact that one of our key leaders on the OGP Steering Committee, Aidan Eyakuze, cannot be here with us because his own government has chosen to effectively hold him hostage in Tanzania, having seized his passport as retaliation for his organization’s work to open up government. This is an outrage and incredibly shameful.

For more positive leadership this week, I encourage you to connect with colleagues from countries such as Kenya; Uruguay; Germany; Côte d’Ivoire; and Canada to draw inspiration from some of their pioneering efforts to bring gender and inclusion to the heart of their OGP reform processes. I’m also proud to share that this OGP summit is the first where a majority of our speakers and presenters are women! And to the women and the men who convened earlier today to announce a new OGP Gender Coalition, thank you for being champions of this crucial work in the coming years.

I recently found my handwritten notes from one of the first meetings I ever attended about what would later become OGP; this was in September 2010. Here’s what I wrote to myself at the time: “We sense a lack of trust globally on the ability of governments to deliver.” That sense of urgency certainly remains. But through our work here this week, we have a chance to rebuild that trust by building new, broad coalitions that shatter racial, ethnic, religious, age, sexual orientation, and gender silos.

Thank you so much.