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Toward a more resilient open government movement

Nathaniel Heller   |   November 10, 2017   |   1 Comment

In case you missed it, the open government honeymoon period is over.

The euphoria surrounding a new way of “doing government” — investing in greater transparency, doubling down on citizen participation and establishing accountability mechanisms to call out abuses of power when things go wrong — has given way to a healthy degree of introspection and self-doubt among many open government boosters. This has been triggered, at least in part, by the rapid changes in geopolitical realities in the past 18 months.

Is this the beginning of a long slog of playing defense and protecting the innovations and cultural shifts achieved to-date in a number of pioneering countries and localities? Or do the current setbacks in open government afford an opportunity to broaden and deepen the movement (if one can even call it a movement)? It depends on one’s perspective on a number of interlinked and complex realities facing open government watchers and doers today:

We’ve lost leadership at the national level in a number of key countries.

There’s little point trying to put lipstick on this pig; a number of early national pioneers in open government have gone from champions to recalcitrant in the past 24 months. These include the United States (“the media is the enemy of the people”), Brazil (soft coup d’etat and successive corruption scandals), the Philippines (strongman populism), Tanzania (which recently unilaterally withdrew from the Open Government Partnership despite being a founding country), Mexico (where civil society has walked out of the Open Government Partnership process due to revelations of digital surveillance by the government) and arguably the United Kingdom (which has seemingly lost focus on the open government agenda in the midst of Brexit). None of this is good.

But we seemed to have gained other new allies at the same time.

The French government under both former President Hollande and newly-elected President Macron have become staunch supporters of the agenda. Canada recently stepped up to co-chair the Open Government Partnership for the coming two years. Reformers in Argentina and both the federal and subnational levels are pioneering ambitious citizen participation initiatives and assuming regional leadership roles.

Fortunately, the local and subnational levels continue to provide innovation and experimentation often lacking at the national level.

Experiments such as the Open Government Partnership’s Subnational Pioneers program are thriving, helping to surface new leadership at the local level in a number of countries. An early (and admittedly small sample size) analysis from the “Pioneers” subnational pilot program suggest that subnational open government commitments might be, on average, more ambitious and more impactful than national government counterparts.

Civic tech appears to be struggling.

A subset of open government (or at least an adjacent community), the civic tech scene appears more disorganized and lacking direction than at any time in the past decade. Earlier this summer I co-hosted an impromptu gathering of many civic tech leaders in the U.S. and was stunned by a) how little consensus there was on whether the U.S. civic tech “community” should even bother coordinating amongst itself moving forward; and b) how much disagreement still exists as to whether the primary goals of civic tech are to strengthen voice and empowerment for marginalized constituencies, improve the business and efficiency of government itself, or some other hybrid set of objectives. MySociety, one of the leading civic tech organizations on the planet, recently announced that it might have to shut down some of its key democracy projects due to lack of funding (possibly putting to bed the dangerous myth that civic-tech-for-better-democracy has a self-sustaining business model). Barely more than a year after key civic tech donor Omidyar Network commissioned a report calling for a more concerted approach by the community to building a purposeful civic tech “movement,” it appears things are going in precisely the opposite direction.

To describe the above data points as a “mixed picture” is an understatement! It’s hard to separate the noise from the signal these days. I personally draw two conclusions from the cacophony that helps to shed light on the way forward in the coming years.

  1. To abuse a cliché, open government is a journey, not a destination. It’s about culture and norm shifts within public sector institutions and non-state actors, and it’s a messy, fluid process that doesn’t have clean benchmarks for success or failure. It also doesn’t have an end point where we can declare victory, pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, and move on; it’s going to be a perpetual, generational struggle.We should continue to expect that changes in government will have dramatic effects on the short- and medium-term trajectory of open government in many countries, both positive and negative. At the same time, countries that we are currently concerned about today may rally once again to the agenda when political fortunes change in the future. This is why both government and civil society reformers are currently struggling to maintain open government processes in challenging contexts, such as the U.S. (despite some reservations), where current political leadership has shown little interest in the agenda. There’s a compelling argument to be made that “slogging through” and not abandoning the open government agenda in tough times is precisely the right thing to do, helping to sow the seeds of future progress once political winds shift. Simply weathering the shocks may be the most important thing we can do in many countries currently, and it’s a necessary if difficult thing.
  2. A goal for the open government community should be to build resiliency of the agenda at both the national and subnational levels in key countries. We’ve been dealt a heavy dose of a reality check in the past 24 months, and we’d better learn from it quickly. For me, the key takeaway is that we should be constantly planning for darker days and not taking current momentum for granted; that implies developing more resilient strategies and tactics that don’t put too many eggs into the baskets of particular personalities who may or may not be in positions of influence in the future. This was in part the inspiration behind OGP’s subnational pilot when it began more than two years ago: to make an investment in developing a new pipeline of leadership at the local levels even when we were benefitting from strong national leadership in many countries. OGP now needs that local leadership more than ever, but we’re only able to draw on it because we laid the groundwork years earlier despite not facing imminent crises at the time.

Resiliency doesn’t come free and requires upfront investments that may seem unnecessary at the time. But if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that building a more resilient open government movement may be our greatest immediate priority.

Photo © Shankar S.

Comments 1 Response

  1. Mike Gifford November 25, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

    Nice article. I am reminded how so often open* means “without cost” to many people. In the open source world it is abundantly clear that enthusiasm alone only goes so far. At some point you need to find means to financially support the drivers of the movement. Ultimately for anything open* to survive, you need to find a way to support the ecosystem that sustains it. With that investment of time, money and occasionally beer/pizza, some truly amazing things can happen.

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