Now is the time for more openness, not less

November 22, 2016
A faltering movement?

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that 2016 has been a tumultuous year for global politics and for the open government movement. We are seeing a resurgence in nationalist and isolationist politics, and the outcome of the election in the US, the popular vote rejecting the Colombian peace treaty, and the Brexit referendum have created huge uncertainty not only in the US, Colombia, and UK — but around the world.

The initial enthusiasm around the creation of the Open Government Partnership with the leadership of Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines has been somewhat tempered. Key allies are now more reticent to engage in international open government work for a variety of both political and economic reasons.

The credentials of the UK and US as champions of openness look increasingly strained. We fear the momentum behind transparency and cross-border cooperation of the Cameron and Obama administrations may soon feel like a distant, golden era.

As we’ve witnessed in the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote — there is a risk that political support for open government has started to ebb away. Ministers are distracted by Brexit, and we fear that a government which had previously been globally feted for its vision around transparency and open data may be retreating from these positions.

The US election result served to highlight that there is a deep disillusionment and anger with mainstream political parties and the so-called “liberal and metropolitan elite.” These forces are not only expressing themselves on the right — but also on the left — as we’ve seen in the UK with the rise of Momentum and in the US with the campaign by Bernie Sanders.

This feels like a firm rejection of centrist politics from large groups of voters who feel that these parties and politicians represent a self-serving liberal elite group, inured to the hardships being suffered by many outside the metropolitan centers.

We should examine ourselves critically here. It’s easy for us to trot out comforting platitudes around citizen participation and engagement and the ways in which they can transform people’s lives.

We need to take a hard look at the solutions we are creating, to ensure that they connect with and deliver for every citizen, if we are to restore faith in government.

Open government has come a long way and innovation continues

But what do we do? Give up? Retreat to Davos or inside the Beltway and wait for the next election cycle? I firmly believe it is the time to make the case that now more than ever, greater openness and more accountable government is exactly what is needed.

That roar of frustration — of “taking back control” requires a more responsive, listening government. One that responds to people’s desire for better services — to have less corrupt public officials and a government that serves their needs — at all levels.

As many have said before, there is still considerable momentum behind the open government movement, and we need to remind ourselves how far we’ve come and how much openness has been achieved.

There are now 111 countries that have access to information laws, there are well over 2,600 open data portals and over 100 countries now publish both tender and award data for public procurement.

The challenge will be to make sure that people use these resources; and that media, civil society, and others can challenge abuse and misuse by government.

Tech is not a silver bullet, but the great enabler

While it is clear that we have come a long way, each of these achievements require some caveats. The implementation of access to information laws and open data policies almost universally lag behind high-level commitments. As we’ve seen in these recent elections, effective and meaningful citizen participation in government remains a huge challenge, both politically and logistically.

In 2006 when Omidyar Network first started investing in organizations and solutions to improve the relationship between citizens and government, technology was viewed as a useful tool but not a wide ranging enabler of openness. Early adopters were derided as “shiny-eyed Silicon Valley enthusiasts.”

Today you only need to look to countries such as Zimbabwe, where we recently saw the calls for citizen action around the ThisFlag movement, to see the huge potential of technology to drive citizen engagement.

So while technology is not a silver bullet, I am sure few of us would doubt its relevance as a powerful enabler.

I want to highlight some of the huge leaps forward that the open government movement has achieved, but also to underline where there is an opportunity to make a connection between this new distrust of politics and politicians and the drive for openness.

Engaging citizens in government

In 2009, we began supporting organizations including MySociety (UK) and Mzalendo (Kenya) that provide platforms for citizens to engage with the work of government, especially parliaments. They improve the ability of citizens to understand what their elected representatives are doing on their behalf, increasing scrutiny and improving the accountability of decision-makers.

These parliamentary monitoring sites have been replicated and adapted in scores of countries with surprising results.

For example, in Ukraine MPs were found to be voting not only for themselves but for absent colleagues as well, a scandal that was exposed by our investee, Centre UA and which caused a huge media outcry, forcing a change in behavior and working practices.

Civic tech an early but important engine of change

The rise of “civic tech” has been another important development. It’s responsible for creating new opportunities for citizens to talk directly with government and has made governments more responsive to citizens’ needs, especially at the local level.

SeeClickFix, one of our investees from the US, is enabling communities to resolve important local topics with over 2.5 million issues fixed to date. It is doing so as a for-profit company — illustrating the growth of a new asset class within civic tech and gov tech which is attracting increased investment.

The power of revelations

A vital component of accountability has always been the investigation and exposure of corruption and negligence in government. Developments in technology and data are changing the way this process occurs.

We’ve seen many instances of citizens using technology and data releases to drive action. In 2014 the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), analyzed data on teacher’s salaries. It identified more than 1,400 teachers in Hidalgo State who all shared the same birth date — December 31, 1912 — making them all 102 years old and yet still on the payroll. It also identified more than 70 teachers who were paid more than the Mexican President. Again these revelations were picked up by the media and resulted in a major enquiry.

Independent media has always been an essential partner for amplifying data disclosures — none more prominent this year than the work of The International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) and their ground breaking revelations through the Panama Papers.

Revolution needs the right policies

Alongside technology we also recognize that the policy and regulatory environment is absolutely critical to help this revolution take root. We have supported specialist advocacy organizations that strive to secure international agreements, national legislation, and policy commitments that force powerful actors to be more transparent about their interactions and financing.

The European Union has been the battleground for many of these efforts. The Transparency, Accounting and Anti-Money Laundering directives have triggered a global trend towards increased disclosure by companies working in the public sphere.

Now these landmark regulations need to be replicated around the world to ensure that “havens of opacity” do not undermine a growing demand for transparency and accountability.

Collaboration critical to success

While tech and policy are powerful tools, active collaboration between government, civil society, and citizens — which is one of the great objectives of the open government movement — is necessary to make them effective drivers of change.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a shining example of this. It provides opportunities for collaboration, such as government and civil society working together on national commitments, and has grown from eight founder countries to 70 in just five years.

We believe that to succeed in the future the open government movement now needs to take three critical steps:

1) To turn these voluntary commitments into real change on the ground;

2) Take decisive action to curtail “open-washing” where governments who claim the mantle of transparency and accountability actually resist it in practice;

3) Probably most importantly, to understand and respond to the increasing distrust of government and institutions by voters.

I firmly believe that now is the time to double down, to push for greater commitments, actions, and accountability. And where openness is being eroded we must support, encourage, and collaborate. We must work harder with the progressive elements within government, civil society, and the media to ensure openness remains.

This is our mission and we will continue to work to ensure that by 2025, open government is an irreversible reality not just a forgotten promise.

If you would like to hear Stephen, Martha Lane Fox (Doteveryone.org.uk.), Ethan Zuckerman (Center for Civic Media, MIT), Matthew Bishop (The Economist), and other experts explore the challenges and opportunities that the future holds for the open government movement, please visit Omidyar Network’sYouTube channel to view all of the sessions from our recent Open Up 2016 event.

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