Engagement Between Governments and CSOs: Are We Getting Results?

By Claudia Buentjen

States are increasingly recognizing that constructive engagement and collaboration with civil society organizations (CSOs) is an important ingredient to achieving better governance.

States are increasingly recognizing that constructive engagement and collaboration with civil society organizations (CSOs) is an important ingredient to achieving better governance. Promoting such civic engagement is also a key component of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which counts 64 countries and many multilateral organizations as members, including the Asian Development Bank (ADB). And the list is growing. 
The OGP declaration describes the benefits of civic engagement as follows: “Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight.” 
ADB’s partnership with OGP to support transparency, accountability and participation efforts in Asia was highlighted in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index (ATI), an independent measurement of transparency ranking 68 of the world’s leading donor organizations published last week. ADB was named the top rated development bank in the index, fifth overall, and is one of only seven organizations in the index’s top category of “very good.” 
We at ADB are always looking to learn more about the challenges of constructive engagement. So jointly with the Government of the Philippines and World Bank, we all invited representatives of CSOs from five countries—Cambodia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and the Philippines—to a Roundtable Discussion on Constructive Engagement Process between Governments and CSOs: Are we Getting Results?—Experiences and Lessons from Asia. Here are some of the main takeaways: 
All five countries reported that there were opportunities for citizen engagement despite the differences in the extent of government openness. Nepal and the Philippines reported long-standing traditions of civil society and state engagement. In most countries there are opportunities for civil society to identify reform-minded officials and work with them constructively to promote good governance. 
Mutual distrust between civil society and government officials is a key challenge. Bridging the gaps of knowledge between civil society and government officials improves trust. The panelists from Nepal, Mongolia, and the Philippines emphasized that trust building measures include sharing of information, keeping promises, and regular dialogue. While they have made progress in this respect over the years, it remains a work in progress in Cambodia and Myanmar. The discussants from the Philippines shared that many individuals have successfully crossed-over from CSOs to government and vice versa and such crossovers are helpful for fostering CSO-government constructive engagement. The discussant from Myanmar urged more engagement and collaboration with parliamentarians. 
CSOs and most public officials have limited capacity and opportunities to engage effectively. All panelists highlighted the need for sustained donor investment in capacity development over the longer term. Donors were encouraged to provide platforms for constructive engagement. All panelists cited this issue as a key constraint to open government. As governments become more open, civil society and public officials need to develop skills, resources, and systems to engage more effectively. The CSOs indicated that many of them are generally reluctant to accept government money for engagement, as they fear losing their independence. They are relatively more receptive to donor funding, despite similar concerns about independence and sustainability. 
Incentives need to be in place to change officials’ behavior and attitudes on engagement with civil society. It was reported that the legacy of secretive bureaucracies takes a lot of time and effort to change. Incentives for government officials to engage are important. For example, performance bonuses for government agency staff in the Philippines are paid only after disclosure of their budgets. 
There is a gap in government openness between central and local levels of government. Targeted actions are needed to narrow the gap. Myanmar panelists reported that engagement is hampered by the lack of information at the field level about policies on openness issued at the top level of government. 
Governments seek common positions from CSOs on development issues but CSOs find it difficult to develop a consensus. Rising civic engagement in countries such as Cambodia, Mongolia, and Myanmar has triggered rapid growth in the number of CSOs. However, CSOs face a huge challenge in forming common positions. Panelists reported this issue is being addressed through networking and coalition building. 
Legislative frameworks for civic engagement matter and vary. The Philippines, Mongolia, and Nepal were reported to be relatively better off in terms of the legal framework for civic engagement. The better enabling environment in these countries has led to growth of the CSO community and is a factor in their becoming members of OGP. Cambodia panelists cited the need for more robust legislative frameworks and political will to support citizen engagement and civil liberties. The Myanmar panelist reported slow and subtle changes in political will and culture of government in seeking civic participation and called for much a clearer legal framework to promote transparency and access to information.