Posted on December 14, 2012
Did you know that South Africa is a founding member, together with Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, United Kingdom, and United States of the Open Government Partnership (OGP)? Launched in September 2011, this multilateral initiative aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. To become a member of OGP, participating countries must embrace a high-level Open Government Declaration; deliver a country action plan developed with public consultation; and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, the OGP is overseen by a steering committee of governments and civil society organizations.

South Africa's Open Government Partnership Action Plan, published on 9 September 2011, states that since 1994, 'Strong institutions of representative democracy have been built including Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipal councils. Independent public entity institutions supporting democracy including the Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector, the Auditor-General and the Commission for Gender Equality have been set up as outlined in the Constitution. Furthermore, an independent judiciary has been established trusted by the vast majority of South Africans as the final arbiter and whose judgements are trusted.' The Action Plan focuses on measures to: 'strengthen corruption combating instruments and capacity to increase integrity management systems; strengthen mechanisms for meaningful citizen engagement in service delivery improvement and policy development processes; hold public servant to account to the public and the communities they serve through the development and implementation of an accountability management framework for public servants'. The Action Plan outlines South Africa's Open Government efforts to date in combating corruption, protecting media and civil society freedom, enhancing transparency in government promoting accountability in government and encouraging civic engagement. The Action Plan concludes with a table outlining South Africa's OGP commitments and detailing: how each of the stated commitments will contribute to greater transparency, accountability or citizen engagement; who will be involved in implementing the commitment; what government hopes to accomplish by making this commitment and; describing benchmarks. It's an uplifting document and seems to embody much of what citizens would hope to see and hear about the manner in which government conducts itself in a democratic state. It's a pity that the idyllic vision embodied in this Action Plan runs counter to the actions we see in ‘real life' where many have become disillusioned by the evidence of far-reaching corruption, the abuse of state resources, the increasingly draconian clamp-down to access to information and the constant threats to the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the media.

The OGP has important consequences for the way in which the records of government are managed and similarly for archives. As a draft chapter prepared and circulated by the International Records Management Trust (IRMT) for comment notes that, 'Trustworthy, accurate, accessible public records are the basis for transparency and accountability; they are the foundation upon which openness is built.' Explaining why access to reliable records is fundamental, the IRMT states, 'When records are authentic and reliable, open data and access to information become powerful means of ensuring government transparency and enabling citizens to take ownership of and participate more fully in their governments.' Commenting that, 'when record keeping is poor, ordinary citizens are losers', the IRMT sounds a warning that 'Poorly managed records tend to be incomplete, difficult to locate and hard to authenticate; they can be easily manipulated, deleted, fragmented or lost. They undermine access to information initiatives and result in inaccurate or incomplete data, which in turn can lead to misunderstanding and misuse of information, cover-up of fraud, skewed findings and statistics, misguided policy recommendations and misplaced funding, all with serious consequences for citizens' lives. Delivery of justice is impaired, human rights cannot be protected, government services are compromised, and civil society cannot hold governments to account.' The IRMT document includes a set of concrete recommendations and points to countries in which best practice has been observed. The Archival Platform will, as it prepares its State of the Archives Report, be taking a closer look at the way in which archives in the countries mentioned by the IRMT have been constituted and empowered to ensure the ongoing integrity and accessibility of the records of government.

The IRMT has also developed a useful Draft Assessment Tool which outlines recommendations and proposes the measures by which Institutional/regulatory frameworks and capacity can be benchmarked. This should be mandatory reading for every official charged with record keeping in any government department!

What are the implications of the OGP for archives and records management in South Africa? Firstly, it situates records management as a critical tool for democratic rule. This means that those in power should pay closer attention to the challenges faced by records managers. Secondly, it positions the archive as being immediately relevant in the present and for the future. Thirdly, it puts archives and records management practice and institutional arrangements under scrutiny.Fourthly, because the OGP encourages stakeholder engagement in decision making and implementation, there is a direct opportunity for archivists and records manager to make their voices heard! Lastly, the Open Government Action Plan, which each country is required to develop, expresses commitments which citizens(including those tasked with archives and records management) can use to call government to account and advocate for change or transformation.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform