Meetings with Sierra Leone Delegates

Peer learning and exchange has always been at the heart of large-scale efforts for good governance. Especially with international movements like the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the sharing of best practices has remained a crucial cornerstone of success for old and new member countries alike. This is the rationale behind such events as the OGP regional conference in Bali, as well as last week’s visit to the Philippines by four delegates from Sierra Leone, namely: Madam Khadija Sesay, Director of Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative (OGI); Mr. Emmanuel Osho Coker, Secretary to the President; Mr. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, Director of the Society for Democratic Initiatives; and Mr. Joseph Kamara, Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Arranged by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), these meetings with the Open Data Task Force—occurring over two days, from June 26-27, 2014—formed part of the delegates’ schedule of consultations with other departments and organizations.

The Sierra Leone government recently began the formal process to join OGP. This involves the declaration of key commitments aimed at concretizing the OGP ideals of good governance—transparency, citizen empowerment, the elimination of corruption, and the progressive use of technology. In light of this development, the Philippines study tour was organized to allow us to share our experience, as a committed member and one of the founding governments of OGP.

Peer learning

Thursday’s meeting began with an exchange of backgrounds and experiences. Task Force Chair Sec. Edwin Lacierda gave an overview of our country’s membership to OGP, citing Open Data as one of our major commitments. He narrated the Task Force’s journey with Open Data Philippines, as well as the development of the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAiTH). He expounded on the principles behind Open Data—our goal of pursuing government transparency by making data searchable, understandable, and accessible to the public. He spoke about liberating information to help shape policy and to promote data-driven engagements with media and civil society.

He also shared very practical advice, about the usefulness of design in communicating data—so the website is both informative and engaging—and about building public demand through continued engagements. Thus, as we create infographics and dashboards to better present government data, we also encourage the public to interact with the website and use the available information. Additionally, Sec. Lacierda talked about the need to gain support within government. He described some of the challenges the Task Force faced, such as resistance from government staff, some of whom felt reluctant to replace old processes with new ones. Accordingly, we organized skills training sessions to familiarize them with tools that can help them manage their data more effectively.

The delegates from Sierra Leone also spoke about their own efforts toward open governance. Through OGI, which they set up six years ago, they are currently conducting a survey of agencies already opening up their data, and are working on formalizing their OGP membership. Mr. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai talked about their Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was signed into law in Nov. 2013 after ten years of lobbying. He cited strong international support as one of the factors behind this success, as well as their effective grassroots campaign to build demand from the people. But the task was not without its difficulties: they had to constantly deal with opposition resistance and dismantle the general fear around opening information.

Technology for transparency 

Free-flowing conversations characterized these meetings. One of the major themes was the use of technology for transparency, as showcased in Open Data, Official Gazette, and the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System (PhilGEPS). In discussing Official Gazette, Usec. Manuel L. Quezon III explained the decision to expand access through the internet, hence the shift from paper to portal. He also described how his team changed the Gazette’s tone and content, with the aim of providing useful information, not just propaganda.

The meetings also centered on the various upgrades to the PhilGEPS website and the continuing effort to weed out corruption in all aspects of governance. To this end, Sec. Lacierda introduced the concept of geotagging to the delegates. A new tool that automatically embeds geographical information to media such as photos, geotagging can be employed to help track and validate infrastructure projects, thus eliminating avenues of corruption.

Low-tech initiatives

But what about those without computers or internet access? How do we extend Open Data to them? These concerns also arose during the discussions. Ivygail Ong, the Task Force’s Outreach Lead, then shared how graffiti is being utilized to spread budget awareness in India and Argentina. She also talked about a low-tech visualizations workshop she conducted in Butuan, during which participants created infographics using markers and colored paper. Although technology remains a huge factor in spreading access, her examples demonstrate the flexibility of Open Data, and how a change in mindset is still more important than high-tech capability.

The Sierra Leone delegates in turn shared their own methods. Since their country has low internet penetration, their government relies more on TV and radio to communicate information, and often hold public forums so citizens can ask questions. They also conduct marketplace visits, where they interview sellers about the prices of basic commodities. In addition, they organize meetings with traditional chiefs, who then trickle down information to their constituents. Above all, the delegates emphasized the importance of having a personal, open attitude toward governance. By taking government to the people, they recognize that citizens play a significant role in the decision-making processes of their country.

Leaving a legacy

Even as they focused on the present, the meetings also necessarily involved discussions about future plans. For Sierra Leone, the goal is to make OGI an established institution and to further strengthen their transparency mechanisms as they lay down their commitments to OGP. For the Philippines, Sec. Lacierda spoke about a few soon-to-be-launched projects, such as Open Reconstruction—a website that will allow the public to track reconstruction projects after disasters—and a National Feedback Mechanism, which will serve as a platform for citizens to directly engage the government by reporting issues or making queries. These projects form part of the larger effort to make openness part of our country’s system, to make it so entrenched in the national culture as to be irreversible.

As Sec. Lacierda stressed, Open Data is a work in progress and a means to an end. In order to bring about a truly effective cultural shift, we must remain committed to the goals we set out, even as we incorporate lessons from other countries. As Sierra Leone embarks on its OGP journey, we from Open Data Philippines continue our push for good governance, as we look forward to more engagements with other countries and a richer, fuller international dialogue.