The motivations behind committing to open government are diverse, and range from international pressure, to individual political agendas, to inherited policies, to true multi-stakeholder interest. Often commitments lack either the political will needed to deliver them, or the analyses required for their implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. The outcomes are agreements that bring about little to no change, leaving behind just words on paper.

A few examples of whitewashing are:

  • The adoption of global indicators for regulatory governance from a country that has the infrastructure for implementation, by one that lacks the same.
  • Adoption of European Union best practices without the necessary will, support, or capacity needed for their implementation and sustainability.
  • Joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP) without understanding the kind of administrative environment needed to develop and implement an action plan.
  • Development of a strong Access to Information (A2I) law without a robust support system and process for enforcement. Or development of a weak A2I law, while maintaining a rigid enforcement mechanism and thus reinforcing the opacity of the institutional system and putting an extra burden on requesters.

Common Scenarios

There are many reasons why we witness whitewashing, including: commitments are chosen and written poorly, commitments are made to the right thing but in the wrong way, low levels of encouragement to participate in the process, and formal engagement but little meaningful commitment. Common whitewashing scenarios include:

Scenario 1: We have an agenda, but...
  • It is unrealistically ambitious.
  • It is vague and lacks ambition.
  • It is very detailed, but unambitious.
Scenario 2: We have no agenda, and...
  • Only have declarations without any concrete steps to be taken.
Scenario 3: We used to have an agenda, but...
  • There is a political vacuum, and due to political reasons (e.g. de-prioritisation, changes in government, elections, changes in responsible officials) the commitment is in a stalemate.
  • There is a change in the broader political agenda, which reduces the perceived priority of the commitment.