Inclusion and Integrity in the New Tunisia: Q&A with Anouar Ben Khelifa

Members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly celebrate the adoption of the country's new constitution. Tunis, Tunisia, January 26, 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

“There is no sustainable development, there is no sustainable peace, without sustainable institutions,” said Anouar Ben Khelifa, former Tunisian secretary of state for governance and public service.

Ben Khelifa was central in developing Tunisia’s first action plan (2014-16) for the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a voluntary initiative to secure government commitments on promoting transparency, fighting corruption, empowering citizens, and harnessing new technological capabilities.

In a recent conversation with International Peace Institute External Relations Coordinator Rodrigo Saad, he stressed the need to foster inclusive dialogue as part of Tunisia’s engagement with the OGP and the country’s broader political transition of recent years.

“Democracy is new in Tunisia, but it’s giving, at least theoretically, more opportunity to institutions to be close and to be inclusive,” Ben Khelifa said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Could you speak a little bit about Tunisia’s Open Government Partnership efforts, and outline some of the best practices and successes thus far?

The OGP was a tool to represent, in a formal process, the different expectations of our people, people from NGOs, from other components of society, and to give all these stakeholders the opportunity to work together. It was an exciting opportunity and there was strong will in Tunisia to make it work.

In Tunisia in 2014, the new government for which I worked was a transitional one. In this context the OGP was a tool to set expectations and to manage the expectations of people. This in itself was a success—to get together at the same table and discuss freely.

Probably one of the best practices was good communication between members of government. So the fact that there was no political competition between us, ministers did not belong to any political party, this really helped to make all of government support this process.

From the civil society perspective, I think that it was an opportunity to work and to be recognized formally by the government as a partner in shaping the roadmap of Tunisia in the field of governance reforms for the next two years.

What were some challenges faced by the government in implementing the national action plan? What were some lessons learned from Tunisia’s initial engagement with the OGP?

It was not really an easy road to implement such tools that were considered at the time, and are still considered I think, as revolutionary. Probably one of the main challenges was this problem of representativity of civil society. As a member of government responsible for leading the process, I had to choose which NGOs I had to work with to implement this action plan.

The OGP rules stipulate each country has to constitute a steering committee composed of five members of government and five members of civil society. So, which civil society organization would I have to work with, and which could I work with? It was a real challenge, and I tried to make civil society and the NGOs themselves choose which among them was more likely or well-placed. It was a successful process and we didn’t have to apply any pressure to choose. But it was a time-consuming process and it wasn’t easy for them or us.

Propositions of reforms to be part of the action plan were received from the whole of society. We had an open consultation through the internet, and we published in newspapers and other media and said that we were welcoming reforms from anyone from civil society and also from citizens. So the whole process was an inclusive one and the steering committee were obliged to go through the process of selecting which were included.

The second challenge is linked to the situation in Tunisia of instability of governance; the government I worked for was responsible for implementing the first action plan, yet realizing the commitments I included in the action plan was a third government’s responsibility. In terms of the stability of governance this probably wasn’t best practice for continuity and ownership of the process. This gave me the idea that to ensure ownership we have to rely mainly on civil society. Civil society has no instability. They are always working, they’re always present, so if civil society owns the process they can give guarantees that the whole process, from the action plan to its implementation and realization, will be a success.

Another thing is that it is good for the Open Government Partnership to help countries by providing criteria to choose civil NGOs to be a part of the steering committee. This will help civil society not be anxious about the way they are chosen.

Can you share your personal evaluation of how much those commitments in the action plan you developed have been implemented?

Actually it wasn’t a great success, or at least not at the level I was expecting. There is a reason for this, or many reasons. The government that followed the one I worked for had no governance and reform portfolio, so there was noone responsible to lead the process of implementation, even though civil society applied pressure using media etc. But now, with the current government, there is a reform and governance portfolio. I hope that this was be better for the second action plan for 2016-2018.

What, in your view, are the priority areas that need to be addressed in order to ensure transparency, inclusiveness, and responsiveness of government?

Probably the main area is anti-corruption. This is something that is very hard for institutions in Tunisia. Any action plan in the OGP or other frameworks has to include commitments and components related to anti-corruption. Institutions in Tunisia, given the transitional context, are kind of weak, and there is a suspicious attitude of citizens, mainly related to corruption.

If the integrity of institutions of public officials is ensured somehow, institutions will become stronger. The second area is transparency. Transparency in the disclosure of data and information from the government side is still insufficient in Tunisia. We have to work really hard on changing this mentality and to provide the legal framework.

The legal framework, correct me if I’m wrong, is already provided in the constitution—that the government needs to be transparent, to share information?

Yeah it is, and this is our problem, because we have two levels of regulations and rules in Tunisia. The constitution and other regulations and laws have nothing to do with each other. We have to work on the regulations and laws to amend all that aren’t entirely constitutional, and there are many of them. Public officials will not refer directly to the constitution to disclose information or to publish information. The administration in Tunisia is kind of influenced by the French model and is working within this strong hierarchy. If they are not given an order formerly from their boss, and if there is no law providing such transparency in application of the constitution, there will not be any action from officials. We have to “concretize” those constitutional principles with the amendment of laws and regulations.

What other initiatives, other than the OGP, has Tunisia taken, and can still take, to ensure the advancement of political transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness?

The national dialogue was a success story that helped Tunisia go through a very critical period. This is a model of dialogue, not a formal one, but an inclusive one for sure, between different components of society. And it shows the limits of the current conception of institutions that we needed help from civil society to go through critical moments like the one we had at the end of 2013.

Another one is to enhance the legislative framework that is mainly related to governance and to administrative reform. And another thing is to encourage use of open data, to make the information technology accessible for all. This will help access to public services and to have less contact between citizens and public officials so there is less probability for corruption. A further initiative is to introduce positive values such as performance and ethics, and make these part of the legal framework of the public sector. I was leading a process to implement, and it was successful, called “ethics in the public sector,” but it was probably the only initiative from this perspective.

How can international organizations best support open government and other reform initiatives such as those you just mentioned?

In Tunisia the government worked mainly with the OECD on the first action plan. It was a good experience, but the NGOs were kind of suspicious about the intervention of any international organization, even though their role was just supporting the process, not developing the action plan. I was working to explain the role of the OECD and how their presence will not at all be harmful and, on the contrary, will help us in doing the job.

In general, my experience depends on the organization. In Tunisia, especially in the area of governance anti-corruption reform, there are a lot of international organizations wanting to work with Tunisian counterparts. We can ensure coordination between those organizations. I know there is competition between some of them, but for the interests of the country receiving the support, coordination at least between the main international organizations such as the UN and OECD is very helpful, in order to increase recognition of the intervention and make authorities see clearer in terms of which organization is best placed to help.

To what extent will efforts undertaken by Tunisia and participatory institutions contribute to sustainable development and sustainable peace?

Well, there is no sustainable development, there is no sustainable peace, without sustainable institutions. The main area is strengthening institutions, and not distant and theoretical institutions that are unrepresentative; I mean inclusive ones. The transition from non-representative institutions to representative ones is very hard to teach, and it is a remaining challenge for Tunisia. If state and official institutions have the trust of the population, we can hope to achieve sustainable development.

In Tunisia, given the weakness of institutions, civil society has begun to develop aggressive attitudes. They even tried to replace the state in some regions. There is no trust about the integrity, about efficiency, and effectiveness of institutions. We have to really work on this by introducing, as I said, these values and then explaining to the population that there is no link between the institutions they had in the past and the new ones.

Democracy is new in Tunisia, but it’s giving, at least theoretically, more opportunity to institutions to be close and to be inclusive. Elections are no longer a tool or the main basis of the legitimacy of institutions. Institutions have to work on a different kind of legitimacy by a participatory mode of management. They have to be inclusive at all levels, beginning at the provincial level. The municipalities have to be trained to work with citizens in managing local affairs, and then we have to go to the national level.

Are you saying that yes, promoting transparency, inclusiveness, accountability, reform of public institutions, is very important, but also decentralizing governance to the local level would make an important contribution?

Yes, that’s true. It is true because the local level is the closest to the citizen, and the first institutions citizens face are local ones. We have a whole chapter in the constitution dedicated to local governments, or local institutions, but it faces many challenges in implementation. It will not be easy, but it is still necessary to begin with this level of reform.