A (tough) love letter to the Open Movement

By Warren Krafchik and Peter Evans - 03 April 2024
A (tough) love letter to the Open Movement

The ‘Open Movement’ is 20 years old. This reflection is written with love – one of us was deeply involved from the start, the other a fellow traveller looking from the sidelines. Tough love from firm friends, if you will.

As we wrote, the think piece got bouncier and longer as it gathered bad jokes (ours), and challenging ideas (from friends). We found there is a real appetite for debate. ‘We’ (meaning ‘us all’) may need to organise an event or dialogue spaces for this.

This FP2P Blog is a taster. We encourage you to read the whole (piece) – published by the Trust, Accountability and Inclusion collaborative – and come back with your views and ideas.

The Open movement – an exhilarating two-decade ride

The Open family has grown and now includes Budgets, Extractives, Government, Contracting, Ownership, Justice, and Environment. Its unusual band of collaborators includes politicians, bureaucrats, technologists, legal eagles, economists, philosophers, and activists of many stripes.

Open’s promise was that it is both an important end in itself (intrinsically valuable) and also a vehicle for good outcomes in efficiency, governance, accountability and equity (instrumental too). Not everyone bought into all of this – and they did not have to. That was why the broad ask of Open has worked so far, though breadth of membership can come at the expense of depth of commitment. 

Did we change the world yet?

Open has seen impressive gains in global fiscal norms and country transparency, data generation, CSO capacity, and support for reformers (especially when they needed it most.)

But also disappointment – civic participation is stuck, legislatures have been frustrating, and the private sector is still… far too private.

Growing evidence associates fiscal transparency with better macro-management, access to cheaper credit, lower deficits and borrowing, better quality of spending, and some disruption of corrupt practices.  If you joined Open for efficiency and growth, you should be happy.

Beyond impressive case studies, there is less evidence to support Open’s broad instrumental dream: Redistribution, inclusion, and deeper democracy. Transparency is not enough to shift accountability and catalyze complex reform. We have known this for a long time but risk fetishizing transparency when something more and different is needed.

Unintended consequences also raise their ugly heads – ‘Open washing’ of bad actors and the weakly committed. Open is about a race to the top but can risk turning into a club for the mediocre.

This prompts some profound questions: How did this happen? Why did we not anticipate this, and what can we do about it? Looking ahead, democracy is essential to our fight back, but is not enough to tackle autocrats. Democracy must also be seen to deliver. We really need to focus on the economic chasms that populist leaders exploit – and have a credible answer.

The uncomfortable fact is that as Open grew, democracy declined AND inequality deepened. Autocrats gained power, and some of them proved to be good at growth and development, while treading on democracy, participation, and civic space. This is not a new observation – Saskia Brechenmacher wrote about ‘Opening Government, Closing Civic Space; here in 2019.

What next?

Open’s key challenge is political. Can the Open movement assemble – or be part of – coalitions that have the bargaining power to ensure that governments make inclusive and progressive policy choices in an extremely constrained fiscal environment?

There is a lot at stake. We can’t just assume “like now, but bigger” as a strategy. This is the moment to critically review experience through a generative, inclusive, and thorough dialogue to identify the next bold, strategic path.

As a conversation starter, we offer three ideas to complement, not displace the Open movement:

  1. Open power and open politics

In hindsight, Open was idealistic, and institutional, but not very political. We imagine the next wave of Open to be more confident about power and politics – that means identifying feasible redistribution in environments where power has long been linked to those inside government and outside elites with privileged access. The key is to define win-win reforms where elites also see the benefits of progressive change as a political and electoral strategy. A gamble for development, as Stefan Dercon has argued.

Building new power to unlock progressive change might mean restructuring – and possibly even shrinking – the Open family, losing some current members to make space for a broader sweep of civil society and government acutely motivated to solve real world problems and deliver change.

  • Working the ecosystem

We know now that boosting transparency and building capacity in individual actors does not yield transformative change. The next phase should be about shifting the balance of power in fiscal ecosystems. This requires understanding the key actors inside and outside government, examining the roles they play, the incentives that move them, and the relationships they build with others. 

Relationships – how actors interact and how they can work together is core to this approach. 

An exciting new project looking to fill the evidence gap on the political economy of fiscal ecosystems is just getting started, with a pilot study on South Africa.

  • Tackling real, specific problems

The key is to start with the real problems excluded communities face – access to housing, health, or welfare, not access to information – and to ally with those that have coalesced around the problem, understand it best, and have the strongest incentives to get it fixed.

Open is no longer the goal but a powerful tool in our toolbox.

Opportunities as big as the challenges

This is an exciting moment for renewed broader coalitions that can knit together elite and grassroots capacity and action.

Imagine this organizing opportunity: Excluded communities across the country identify a common, critical service delivery problem. They are energized to act collectively, with information drawn from lived experience. As they gather momentum, government leaders smell the opportunity to solve a real problem and earn votes. Finance ministries rally around an opportunity to spend better. Hard-working civil servants nudge other unlikely bureaucrats onside. And formal civil society helps to weave together a coalition, research, frame asks, and hold governments accountable. As services slowly improve, Supreme Audit Institutions ally with communities to tackle corruption and inefficiencies in the service chain.

This kind of organizing is already happening. See the Asivikelane campaign in South Africa where much of this thinking emerged, and IBP’s broader SPARK initiative. Also see the Open Contracting Partnership’s work in Ukraine; and OGP’s new country strategy in Kenya and the Philippines.

This is a time for hard strategy. Comfort zones will be challenged!  There is much to discuss and no time to waste.



Warren Krafchik and Peter Evans.

This post first appeared on from Poverty to Power.

Photo by Prateek Katyal




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