There’s no shortage of “open government”.
A simple search will pull up OpenGovernment.org, OpenTheGovernment.org, Open Government Initiative, Open Gov Hub, and the Open Gov Foundation. Since 2011, over 60 countries have joined the Open Government Partnership. The World Bank has an Open Government Data Toolkit and recently announced a three-year initiative to help developing countries leverage open data.
But despite all the ambition and innovation, the utility of this movement is yet unproven. Many initiatives seek transparent, participatory, and accountable governance, but is the practice of open government living up to the promise behind these three pillars?
Let’s start with transparency. Liberia’s Open Budget Initiative—one of the country’s Open Government Partnership commitments—set up an electronic billboard outside its office in Monrovia as a bold symbol of openness, but several key aspects of the country’s budgets—including government compensation—remain in closed cabinets.
Further, are countries becoming more transparent in meaningful ways?
Across Africa, countries are opening up about how they plan to spend their budgets, but keeping mum about how they actually spent them. Public finance expert Matt Andrews has shown that across 28 African states, governments are 63 percent more transparent in budget formulation than in budget execution.
And what of participation? For all the talk of technology’s broad and inclusive reach, conversations on open government are dominated by those with the means to participate. In one Italian parliamentary monitoring project, it was found that participants were mostly men (84 percent) and 3,500 times more likely to hold a PhD than the average citizen. The priorities raised, as a result, represent the views of a narrow and elite set of citizens.
Other studies—including those from Turkey and Japan—show that participants in open government initiatives are often the more privileged members of a society. Over-represented groups include: the young or educated who know how to use digital technologies, those already politically active, and the relatively wealthy who can afford both the time and means to participate.
And finally, our collective end goal: accountability. Kenya is an oft-celebrated model of open government success. Two years ago, the government launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative. At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki said, “I also call upon Kenyans to make use of this Government Data Portal to enhance accountability and improve governance in our country. Indeed, data is the foundation of improving governance and accountability. […] This way the people can hold government service providers accountable for the use of public resources.” The Initiative has neat apps, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and has enabled the Code for Kenya program. In 2012, Kenya joined the Open Government Partnership.
That same year, however, at least 28 journalists were threatened or attacked by government bodies for their coverage of state corruption. Today, the country is considering legislation that would further tighten media regulation—already described by local journalists as “emasculating.”
In the United States, the Obama administration has pledged to enable an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” And while Data.gov has, to date, released over 98,000 datasets, the administration has also heavily restricted the classification and release of government information.
What these diverse initiatives illustrate is the challenge of a technocentric view of open government. This is understandable. With technology such an obvious and visible driver of innovation, the space is dominated by technologists with novel and creative ways to use their skills in the service of the public good. And government officials and civil society groups alike have been seduced by technology’s novelty and capacities to relieve them from the hard work that social change has historically required.
So long as a government embraces new technologies, releases some datasets, and makes high-profile commitments to the international community, it is a card-carrying member of the open government community. But as we work to advance open government, we must also ensure that we not only preach accountability, but practice it, too.
In 2001, political scientist Archon Fung and sociologist Erik Olin Wright questioned the sustainability of participatory governance models. Empowered, deliberative governance is indeed innovative, they wrote, but it is yet historically unproven to lead to better outcomes. And based on their survey of such initiatives, they warned against unintended consequences: “[O]ne might expect that practical demands on these institutions might press participants eventually to abandon time-consuming deliberative decision making in favor of oligarchic or technocratic forms. […] After participants have plucked the ‘low-hanging fruit,’ these forms might again ossify into the very bureaucracies that they sought to replace.”
In 2007, civic technologist Guglielmo Celata noted upon reflecting on his Italian e-democracy site Openpolis, “[Government] administrators are interested in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.”
A study of municipal participatory governance processes—implemented between 2007 and 2011 in Spain—shows that in many cases, local governments simply cherry-pick proposals from citizens they like, or views that reinforce those of political parties, special interest groups, or vetted experts. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
The design of an open government initiative can help or hinder citizens’ ability to input on the processes of governance, governments’ ability to respond, and our collective ability to ensure the initiative’s accountability. If we are to realize the potential of open government, we must be sensitive to these realities.
So as we continue to build tools, secure commitments, and launch programs, let us make sure we hold ourselves accountable for their impact on human livelihoods as well.
Over 1,000 delegates from 60-plus countries are now in London for the Open Government Annual Summit—this is our chance to discuss how we might make good on our ambitions. The Summit is billed an “opportunity for the open government movement to consolidate and build momentum, to reflect on what is working and what is not, and to inspire all participants to return home equipped to pursue an even more ambitious reform agenda.”
Let’s make sure this agenda can deliver.