Russia withdraws from Open Government Partnership. Too much transparency? [UPDATED]

russia-OGP

“Inevitably, there will be questions about what we are each prepared to sign up to,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron in January, in his letter to his fellow G8 leaders. For months later, Russia has made clear it clear what it wasn’t willing to sign onto: the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The most recent update on Russia is that the Kremlin will be pursuing “open government” on its own terms. Russia has withdrawn the letter of intent that it submitted on April 2012 in Brazil, at the first annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership.

Update: On May 23, The Moscow Times reported that Russia had just “postponed” its entry into OGP. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian daily newspaper Kommersant that “we are not talking about winding up plans to join, but corrections in timing and the scale of participation are possible.” Open government advocate  David Eaves interprets this state of affairs to mean A) “transparency matters” and B) that “Russia may still be in OGP. Just not soon. And maybe never.” For now, Russia has withdrawn its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership and with that action, its commitments to transparency. OGP itself has  “adjusted” its website to reflect the change, which is to say that the former page for Russia can no longer be found. So what will open government mean in the largest country in the world? Read on.

If the dominant binary of the 21st century is between open and closed, Russia looks more interested in opting towards more controllable, technocratic options that involve discretionary data releases instead of an independent judiciary or freedom of assembly or the press.

One of the challenges of the Open Government Partnership has always been the criteria that a country had to pass to join and then continue to be a member. Russia’s inclusion in OGP instantly raised eyebrows, doubts and fears last April, given rampant corruption in the public sector and Russia’s terrible record on press freedom.

“Russia’s withdrawal from the OGP is an important reminder that open government isn’t easy or politically simple,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity. “While we don’t yet fully understand why Russia is leaving OGP, it’s safe to assume that the powers that be in the Kremlin decided that it was untenable to give reformers elsewhere in the Russian government the freedom to advance the open government agenda within the bureaucracy.”

The choices of Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, who had publicly supported joining the OGP and made open government a principle of his government, may well have been called into question by Russia’s powerful president, Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev had been signaling a move towards adopting more comfortable sorts of “openness” for some time, leading up to and following Russia joining the Open Government Partnership in December 2012. Russia’s prime minister has sought to position himself as a reformer on the world stage, making a pitch at Davis for Russia being “open for business” earlier this year at the Davos economic forum. Adopting substantive open government reforms could well make a difference with respect to foreign investors concerns about corruption and governance.

While the Kremlin shows few signs of loosening its iron grip on national security and defense secrets, Russia faces the same need to modernize to meet the increasing demand of its citizens for online services as every developed nation.

Even if Russia may not be continue its membership in the Open Government Partnership, the Russian government’s version of “openness” may endure, at least with respect to federal, city and state IT systems. Over the winter, a version of “Open Government a la Russe” – in Cyrillic, большоеправительство or “big government” — seemed to accelerating at the national level and catching on in its capital. Maybe that will still happen, and Russion national action plan will go forward.

“While Russia’s approach to open government may be primarily technocratic, there’s a sense in which even the strongest legal requirements are only tools we give to our allies in governments,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunight Foundation. “FOI officers analyzing records, or judges deciding whether or not to enforce laws are embodying both legal and cultural realities when they determine how open a country will be, just as much as policy makers who determine which policies to pass. While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions for reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.”

What is more clear, however, is that the Kremlin seems much more interested the sort of “open government” that creates economic value, as opposed to sustaining independent auditors, press or civil society that’s required in functional democracies. Plutocracy and kleptrocacy doesn’t typically co-exist well open, democratic governments — or vice versa.

Given that the United States efforts on open government prominently feature the pursuit of similar value in releasing government data, Russia’s focus isn’t novel. In fact, “open data” is part of more than half of the plans of the participating countries in OGP, along with e-government reforms. In May of 2012, a presidential declaration directed governmental bodies to open up government data.

In February, Moscow launched an open data platform, at data.mos.ru, that supplied material for digital atlas of the city. Russia established an “open data council” the same month. Those steps forward could stand to benefit Russian citizens and bring some tangential benefits to transparency and accountability, if Russia and its cities can stomach the release of embarrassing data about spending, budgets or performance.

While some accounts of open government in Russia highlighted the potential of Russia to tap into new opportunities for innovation afforded by connected citizenry that exist around the world, crackdowns on civil society and transparency organizations have sorely tested the Russian government’s credibility on the issue. This trial of anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny for corruption this spring showed how far Russia has to go.

“Open government isn’t just open data nor is it e-government, two areas in which the Russian Federal had appeared to be willing to engage on the open government agenda,” said Heller. “Many observers doubted how far Russia could take open government in a climate of political repression, civil society crackdowns, and judicial abuse of power.”

Today’s news looks like a victory of conservatives in the Kremlin over government reformers interested in reducing corruption and adopting modern public sector management techniques. “We need to use modern technologies, crowd sourcing,” said Medvedev said in January 2013. “Those technologies change the status and enhance the legitimacy of decisions made in government.”

Changes in technology will undoubtedly influence Russia, as they will every country, albeit within the cultural and economic context of each. This withdrawal from OGP, however, may be a missed opportunity for civil society, at least with respect to losing a lever for reform, reduced corruption and institutions accountable to the people. Leaving the partnership suggests that Russia may be a bit scared of real transparency, or least the sort where the national government willing allows itself to be criticized by civil society and foreign non-governmental organizations.

It’s something of a mixed victory for the Open Government Partnership, too: getting to be a member and stay one means something, after all.

“For the Open Government Partnership, this will be seen as a bit of a blow to their progress, but its success was never predicated on getting every qualifying government to join,” said Wonderlich. “In a sense, Russia’s withdrawal may alleviate the need for OGP to grapple with Russia’s recent, severe treatment of NGOs there. More broadly, Russia’s withdrawal may better define the space in which the OGP mechanism can function well. Building a movement around commitments from heads of state has allowed OGP’s ranks to rapidly grow, but we’re also probably entering a new time for OGP, where the depth and reliability of those commitments will become clearer. Transitions between governments, domestic politics, corruption scandals, hypocritical behavior, uncooperative legislatures, exclusion of domestic NGOs, and internal power struggles may all threaten individual national commitments, and OGP will need to determine how to adapt to each of these challenges. OGP will need to determine whether it wants to be the arbiter of appropriate behavior on each of these dimensions, or whether its role is better left to the commitments and National Action Plans on which it was founded. “

If OGP is to endure and have a meaningful impact on the world, its imprimatur has to have integrity and some weight of moral justice, based upon internationally shared norms on human rights and civil liberties. As press freedom goes, so to does open government and democracy.

“International boosters of open government may want to remain cautious at embracing open government reformers at the first whiff of ‘openness’ or rhetorical commitment to the agenda,” said Heller. “Within weeks of Russia first making noise around joining OGP, the World Bank and others rushed to assemble a major international conference in the country around open government to boost reformers inside the bureaucracy as they sought to move the country into OGP. While no one should criticize those efforts, they are a sobering reminder that initial rhetorical commitment to open government can only take us so far, and it’s wise to keep the political powder dry for other downstream fights.”

Given the scale of bribery and the impact of corruption on growth, Russians can only hope that more “openness” with teeth comes to their country soon.

4 thoughts on “Russia withdraws from Open Government Partnership. Too much transparency? [UPDATED]

  1. Putting “opendata” on technocracy side vs democracy is a fun point, but I doubt that it would be possible to open up considerable amounts of really valuable data without proper changes in the legislation and the way government works. And without it, it is same old imitation. I think it is a little bit premature to say that “Russia embraced opendata”. What we’re seeing right now is wrapping up as “opendata” what was already available before in some form. Moscow open data portal, while capturing the prize of pioneering has currently taken the same road of giving out something no official would really be upset about. This might be just the first step to get everything started, but might be the last too, we’ll see.

  2. Pingback: Russia withdraws from Open Government Partnership | Open Government Partnership Blog

  3. Pingback: Evolution of Electronic Government in Russia – DRAFT « Center for New Media and Society

  4. Pingback: Russian Minister Nikolay Nikiforov: more open data on budgets and contracts to come | E Pluribus Unum

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