Civil society members of the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership OGP) have called on stakeholders to protect open, inclusive and accountable governance, while upholding democratic standards and personal rights as the world battles the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The OGP Civil Society Steering Committee members noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a global state of emergency that is rapidly overburdening governments, with public institutions being under pressure as never before and at this time, protecting lives and livelihoods, sustaining health-care systems and the resetting of the economy have rightly become the most pressing priorities for the foreseeable future.
Noting that a state of emergency such as this pandemic requires extraordinary measures, they, however, cautioned that governments must respect civic space and human rights in whatever actions they take as they respond to the pandemic.
They stated that in many cases, measures taken have been proportionate and justified but that“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, they observed, appear to go beyond what is necessary for health and safety, even in a pandemic adding that in some instances, measures have been introduced without any clarity on when or how they will be rolled back.
Pointing out that prior to Covid-19 democracy was already at risk, with trust in government at ever-lower levels and civic space under attack, they noted that a crisis of this magnitude further threatens democracy through increased political repression, overly zealous strengthening of executive power, and increased corruption.
They said that; “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.”
As the world finds itself at a crossroad, they warned that it can either address this pandemic in a way that protects or even revives trust, democracy, open and inclusive governance — or ignore them and expect a deeper erosion of open governance, one that would be very hard to reverse.
To this end, the release a call to action to different stakeholders: governments, donors and international organisations.
To promote the values that define democracy, they called 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 tracks. Ensure that any digital tracking and surveillance used to protect health are time-bound and periodically reviewed, is subject to continuous specialist and civil society oversight to protect the privacy and that there is full transparency on the 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.
They called 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 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.
They also called 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, they noted, we will be able to revitalise global democracy and bring about more just, equal and cohesive societies.