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Four things to look for in open government in the next five years

[Editor’s Note: On April 9, the city of Austin, Texas, held an Open Government Forum. R4D Managing Director Nathaniel Heller was asked to participate, and his remarks from the afternoon plenary session are transcribed below.]

I would like to spend a few minutes sharing some ideas on where we might expect the open government movement to be in 2020. What might it look like five years from now? Will it simply be more of the same, something radically different from how we conceive of it today, or a diminished fad that we’ll look back on chuckling, “I can’t believe that was a thing back in 2015! ”Let me dive in and offer four things to watch for in open government in the next five years.

  1. Is open government one movement or several?
  2. It’s the cities, stupid
  3. Open government requires an open internet
  4. Making open government work for everyone

1. Is open government one movement or several?

When initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership began roughly 5 years ago, we embraced an explicitly big tent approach to defining what we meant by “open government.” This was a tactical choice; we wanted to build the momentum of OGP by bringing in as many political and civil society leaders as possible from around the world. And it generally worked.

But that approach has also created an image, at times, of open government as a clown car, with seemingly dozens of different actors and stakeholders spilling out on a regular basis. The current rough consensus on what defines open government is a disparate collection of reforms that one can cluster into three buckets:

  1. Information transparency: that the public understands the workings of their government;
  2. Public participation: that the public can influence the workings of their government by engaging in governmental policy processes and service delivery programs; and
  3. Accountability: that the public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance.

Into those three buckets we can then deposit many of the “open government” initiatives, programs, and interventions that are often invoked on their own as “open government.” In the transparency bucket you have everything from freedom of information regimes to asset disclosure requirements to open data initiatives. In the public participation bucket one can find e-government services, participatory budgeting, and digital town halls. In the accountability bucket we find many traditional anti-corruption and enforcement activities, from conflicts of interest and gifts regulations to internal auditing and ombudsman functions.

What’s most important, to me, is that none of these initiatives in and of themselves constitute “open government” alone. Rather, only when combined with the others do we truly see the potential for “open government” in its most powerful form. What we’re striving for is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

But can we really hold this ship together over the next five years? Freedom of information advocates and investigative journalists have often chafed at the civic hacker and open data movement as a Pollyannaish side show that allows government to check the “openness” box while avoiding tougher reforms. Similarly, prosecutors and investigators have often weak working relationships with budget transparency organizations in civil society, despite budget analysis and “follow the money” techniques offering a powerful way to make better public integrity cases.

While I don’t sense an imminent existential crisis, I do believe that open government is a garden full of many delicate flowers that all need regular care and attention. This means we need to invest in intentional bridge building between historically siloed communities. We also need to invest in research and shared work programs to demonstrate the value we can unlock together as a holistic community.

2. It’s the cities, stupid

This might seem obvious, but it’s not. There’s a growing dichotomy between national and municipal governments in the open government movement that needs attention, quickly, if we’re to see this movement thrive in the coming five years.

Over time, “professionalized” open government – the sorts of events and initiatives that garner media and political attention – has generally taken place at the national level. The Open Government Partnership, for example, was designed explicitly to encourage a race to the top between national governments, each of which would develop unique open government commitments on a regular basis through co-creation of those plans with civil society. The focal points of activity in OGP are embedded within national and federal governments, and the National Action Plans produced every two years by the 65 governments are, self-evidently, national!

Why does this matter? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, some of the most exciting innovations around the world in open government are emerging at the local level, particularly in medium- and large-cities. Participatory budgeting didn’t begin twenty years ago at the United Nations; it began in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. In the realm of open data, some of the most impactful and exciting campaigns to liberate and reuse government data have been in cities like Boston, not at the federal level in the US, where uptake of national open data has never quite met initial expectations. And while ethics scandals in the US Congress make headlines regularly, it’s high-profile corruption cases in places like Richmond, Sacramento, and Albany that stand a better chance of restoring faith in government.

Cities are also where most citizens interact with government on a regular basis, of course. Apart from filing our taxes and collecting social security checks from the federal government, the majority of Americans encounter government more frequently at the state, county, and local levels. This is where we pull construction permits, complain about the quality of our kids’ schools, and deliver health services to needy populations.

Watching what cities like Kansas City, Missouri are doing with data analytics, for example, offers an inspiring model for how open government can actually matter for day to day improvements in the quality of city life. Every single 311 call or online query submitted to the Kansas City government is logged and tagged in a highly structured database. This vast amount of data is then combined with large-scale household perception surveys on an annual basis. By triangulating actual 311 requests with how citizens perceive the quality of their city services, city officials can make more evidence-informed decisions on how best to allocate resources and where community engagement is lacking. Trying this at the federal level in the US would likely be folly, but at the city level it’s potentially game-changing.

The bottom-line: if we want to see a thriving open government movement in 2020, we need to start investing and nurturing open government in cities, and we need to do it now.

3. Open government requires an open internet

Since joining the Open Government Partnership steering committee, I’ve become increasingly immersed in the world of civic space or, more specifically, the nascent campaign to “defend” civic space. This is essentially an effort to push back on a worrying number of countries that are increasingly restricting the ability of civil society organizations to operate freely. These restrictions often take the form of new regulations that limit or prohibit the ability of local organizations to receive financial support from abroad, arbitrary tax raids and inspections, selective auditing of non-profits’ books, and even detention based on trumped up charges.  Fighting back against these draconian methods is a laudable effort that merits our support.

But the recent groundswell of attention around shrinking civic space has felt, to me, somewhat hollowed out and cherry-picked. Why? While we’re indeed witnessing a concerted effort in some countries to restrict the ability of non-governmental organizations to legally register or receive financial support from abroad, we’re simultaneously witnessing a concerted effort by many of the key backers of the “defend civic space” movement to dismantle privacy and anonymity protections in cyberspace. This schizophrenic understanding of “civic space” is troubling and needs a course correction, quickly, if we’re serious about defending civic space and embracing true open government. Put another way: open government is inconsistent with a highly surveilled digital landscape.

To achieve that course correction, we need to accomplish a number of reforms. First, bulk data collection efforts and the undermining of encryption standards need to be reined in. For anyone who’s ever worked with or for a civil society organization on edgy issues such as human rights or corruption, the ability to communicate with peers discretely and securely is as essential as oxygen. But as the Edward Snowden documents have made painfully clear, the methods we thought were traditionally safe for communicating and transmitting sensitive information about our work have been actively undermined by intelligence agencies. Not only were our favorite commercial email and peer to peer communication servers tapped and monitored on a bulk basis, but popular digital encryption standards were actively watered down by the NSA to allow for easier surveillance. This matters equally for cities, where the increasing use of closed circuit television systems, large-scale passive data collection (think gunshot detection systems), and a traditional reluctance from law enforcement agencies to embrace basic transparency principles sets the stage for future crises, in my view.

I realize these are extremely sensitive topics that involve a host of loaded equities. But I also know we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend that “open government” doesn’t include digital rights protections; it does. If we want to see a thriving open government movement in 2020, we need to begin tackling these thorny issues now.

4. Making open government work for everyone

How many of you have ever been to or participated in a hackathon? And for those that have been to one, what do you estimate was the percentage of non-white, non-male, over-30 attendees? If your answer is greater than ten percent, consider yourself lucky.

One of the dirty little secrets about open government, particularly its digital incarnations, is that it is heavily skewed towards single, young, highly educated, white men. There are of course amazing exceptions to this rule, but on the whole much of what we today consider to be open government has been designed for and is practiced by an elite, privileged sliver of society. We can and need to do better.

We can start by acknowledging the limits and, at times, inherent biases of digital tools used for citizen engagement. Not everyone feels comfortable submitting a complaint about public services through a smartphone app, particularly those with unclear legal status. Assuming single mothers with three children have the time and ability to attend a budget hearing or a hackathon on Saturday evenings is at best ignorant and at worst discriminatory. Asking kids that have grown up in poverty and who can barely read or master elementary math skills to build an app using open government data is laughable.

Will open government in 2020 be an exclusively young, single, white man’s movement? Or can we work towards a more inclusive, diverse open government movement during the next five years? I think we can.

To start, we need to surface and acknowledge the inherent barriers to participation in many open government activities, whether because of their location, time of day, implicit costs, or required skill sets. It also means taking open government to where people actually live, work and play – places like churches, public libraries, parks, and transit stations – rather than asking the public to come to us if they want to participate in open government. Open government won’t work if we build it and expect them to come. Open government needs to go to the people, and that’s going to take a fairly radical rethink of how we have traditionally conceived of and constructed public consultations, hearings, and the traditional set piece policymaking process.

Second, we need to make a real effort to avoid fetishizing digital tools as the only way to do open government. Without a doubt, digital tools can and have already served as incredible game changers in many ways. They’ve opened up the policymaking process through crowdsourcing, improved government accountability through open data and more transparent procurement systems, and linked reformers around the world in dynamic, real-time ways.

But using technological approaches exclusively and at the expense of offline alternatives runs the risk of alienating a vast swath of the population. Not everyone can afford the time or money to master digital terrains such as GitHub or Twitter.

One small example: one of the world’s most effective budget transparency campaigns took place in Rajasthan, India, where district budget figures were literally painted onto the walls of people’s mud huts. That information catalyzed a national right to information mass movement that eventually led to the passage of the country’s landmark right to information law. This all happened without an app or an open data portal.

To put it succinctly: if by 2020 open government is simply code (in the proverbial sense!) for “doing government online,” we’ll have missed a huge opportunity to radically reimagine how government actually functions. Digital approaches matter, absolutely, but they aren’t the end all or be all of open government.

If you buy into my four points, then the next five years in open government will be both incredibly exciting and challenging. We have a huge amount of work ahead of us: simultaneously trying to unify while diversifying the movement; working to integrate digital rights and digital protections into the open government architecture; and figuring out ways to place cities at the epicenter of everything we do in open government. This will take creativity, political savviness, and a willingness to make the right investments at the right time. But it’s entirely possible and absolutely worth our best shot.

If we’re being intellectually honest with ourselves, open government is at its heart a project to shift the balance of power away from the exclusive domain of governments towards an aspirational future where government and the public “co-create” policies and monitor the delivery of public services together. This is an inherently political process fraught with power struggles and, to be frank, real winners and losers. But the prospect of success is incredibly tantalizing and worth the heavy lift.

This is all going to have to happen first at the city level. Cities are where the action is and will be on open government in the future. You are working at ground zero of a revolution in the citizen-government relationship, and I can’t wait to see what you make of it.

 

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