We’re at a critical moment in history, amidst a confluence of five profound crises. 

First, a catastrophic health crisis unleashed by the most devastating pandemic in a hundred years. Second, a global economic crisis, now the worst recession since World War II, leaving millions unemployed and vulnerable around the world. Third, a climate crisis ravaging communities. Fourth, a crisis of inequality, including systemic racism igniting global protests. And fifth, a crisis of democracy, reflecting citizens’ eroding trust in their governments as well as the unfettered rise of authoritarian leaders attacking democratic institutions and civil liberties, spreading disinformation.

We in the open government community must fight this through our core values of inclusion, justice and human rights. 

And yet, at this same moment in history, the open government movement has a unique opportunity to help tackle these crises. Courageous reformers and activists - in Open Government Partnership (OGP) countries and beyond - are implementing innovative reforms that showcase an alternative: a more hopeful vision that empowers all citizens to shape and oversee their government. A vision of a more open Covid-19 recovery that saves millions of lives and livelihoods. 

A photo of a woman holding an "open" sign in a cafe doorway
Photo Credit: iStock

We need open contracts, open budgets, open aid, allowing citizens to follow the money.

But to achieve this vision, we must act on three pressing priorities:

Our first priority is to ensure transparency and public oversight over the staggering $20 trillion being invested globally in Covid-19 stimulus and safety nets. When so much money moves so fast, there is a high risk of corruption, capture and waste, as we are seeing in Covid-19 corruption scandals in Brazil, Kenya, the Philippines, the U.S. and beyond. 

We need open contracts, open budgets, open aid, allowing citizens to follow the money. Globally governments spend a massive $13 trillion on public contracts but only 3 percent are published openly. When Ukraine disclosed all contracts as open data and empowered citizens to report violations, the government saved $1 billion in two years, 82% of entrepreneurs reported reduced corruption, and there was a 50% increase in new businesses bidding for contracts. We must work together to make open contracts the global norm to fight entrenched corruption.   

As we recover from the pandemic, we must build more inclusive democracies by systematically including women and historically marginalized groups

Our second priority is to rectify societal inequities laid bare by the pandemic.  We in the open government community must fight this through our core values of inclusion, justice and human rights. 

Inclusion is vital in the Covid-19 response to ensure that resources reach the most needy, not the most powerful.  We need openness in decision-making and oversight over implementation to empower all voices, especially those of the most vulnerable.  In the Philippines, the government allocated $4 billion for Covid-19 safety nets, but to now ensure that these actually reach 18 million vulnerable households, civil society has called for transparency of who is eligible, a citizens’ grievance redressal mechanism, and oversight by citizen groups and audit institutions. 

We also need to ensure that Covid-19 bailouts are not captured by the politically connected.  We call on stakeholders to advance transparency and oversight in lobbying - as in Chile and Ireland - and in company ownership - as in the UK and Slovakia.

And as we recover from the pandemic, we must build more inclusive democracies by systematically including women and historically marginalized groups, such as Afghanistan using OGP to advance a national women’s empowerment plan or North Macedonia improving access to justice for its minority Roma community. We also need transparency and accountability of law enforcement to root out biases in the justice sector that disproportionately impact minorities and the poor.

With open civic space, we can foster robust civic engagement to reinvigorate democracy.

Our third priority is to protect citizens' basic ability to freely speak, associate and assemble.  Many governments have used the pandemic to expand state surveillance and arbitrarily restrict civic freedoms that were already under attack in more than 100 countries. We call on governments to roll back these measures and instead enhance civic space such as Mexico committing to democratic regulation and supervision of the state’s digital surveillance.

With open civic space, we can foster robust civic engagement to reinvigorate democracy.  Participatory budgeting in Madrid, Paris and Uruguay has empowered citizens to fund projects that respond to their needs. We call on all national and local governments to scale up reforms like Italy’s Open Coescione and Kaduna, Nigeria’s Citizen Eyes and Ears that empower citizens to shape and oversee their government on an ongoing basis, reinvigorating democracy between and beyond elections.  

If we can join forces across government, civil society, business and accountability institutions, we can together write a positive chapter of open Covid-19 recovery that saves millions of lives and livelihoods.  We can together put citizens at the heart of governance and amplify the voices of the marginalized to build a more just society.

With 78 member countries and thousands of civil society organizations, OGP has the platform, the partnerships and the opportunity to forge a countervailing force against the rise of authoritarianism, and a positive global force to build vibrant and inclusive democracies.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Sanjay Pradhan joined the Open Government Partnership in May 2016. Sanjay supports the countries, local governments and thousands of civil society organizations working to make governments more open, participatory and less corrupt. He leads OGP’s policy dialogue with Heads of States, senior ministers and civil society organizations across the partnership, and serves as OGP’s global spokesperson.

To find out more about Open Government Partnership click here. Here is the OGP's Guide to Open Government and Coronavirus which contains many useful resources across different policy areas. And for more next steps for championing Open Government, take a look at these blogs on response, recovery, reform and stimulus and safety nets.