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Can transparency build trust?

January 24, 2017

Why 2017 must be the year that open government demonstrates transformative impact

By Andrew Clarke, Principal, Policy

2016 was a challenging year for open government. The outcomes of the Brexit referendum, the US election and the referendum on Colombia’s peace deal have thrown many proponents of open government and citizen engagement into an introspective and self-critical mood. It feels to many that the pendulum has begun to swing back from open to closed. A wide range of economic, political, and social factors are behind that change but it does raise a fundamental question about the impact and sustainability of openness: is getting to “open” good enough, or do we need to tear down our outdated institutions and start again?

This question was front of mind at Open Up 2016, an event Omidyar Network convened in November in London to address the future of open government. Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, set this question up nicely by applying the lens of “institutionalists” versus “insurrectionists” to the open government movement. Ethan’s diagnosis was that the open government movement was fundamentally institutionalist, built on the premise that citizens would appreciate their governments and feel more ownership in them if they only understood them better — in a nutshell, trust would follow transparency.

But what Ethan and many others are now positing is that people are not satisfied by increased information; they need to feel that government is actually responsive to their wishes. I think this is a key objective for open government and draws on three inter-connected themes in the movement:

1. challenging traditional institutions and systems;

2. exploring direct forms of citizen participation;

3. a closing of civic space, essential for challenging institutions and for participation.

Insurrection

Some are seeing the only way to achieve responsive government is to start taking a more insurrectionist approach. Do the systems and institutions that underpin most liberal democratic states actually preclude effective participation by citizens, or even preclude holding government to account? In many countries, these institutions have become the domains of a meritocratic elite, itself increasingly in the crosshairs of populist politicians and an electorate that no longer trusts it. Ivan Krastev has written persuasively about this, suggesting that this “fair” and internationalist system based on merit is no longer being tolerated by those who don’t benefit from it. This is particularly challenging to the open government movement, which has placed great hope on the role of connecting reformers inside and outside of government who tend to come from the ranks of this meritocracy.

Participation

Connected to this is a huge conundrum for democratic governments — how to provide citizens with opportunities to directly influence government while retaining the ability to formulate policy based on evidence, expertise, and a balance of interests. Participatory budgeting appears to be making a comeback, this time supported by new civic technologies enabling easier access and consultation. But challenges remain, both technical (such as the exclusion faced by those lacking digital skills) and political — much of a government’s budget is ring-fenced for a host of legitimate (and sometime illegitimate) reasons. This opening up of decision-making on public expenditures starts to impinge on a government’s ability to build a balanced set of policies to serve the interests of many. Evidence-based policy-making is hardly a new idea. But making it openly based on information that is publicly available is.

Closing civic space

However, an over-arching concern at Open Up and at the International Anti-Corruption Conference, held in Panama in December, was protection of civic space. Not only are open government, transparency, and accountability initiatives constrained by a lack of freedoms of expression and assembly; there is also a critical threat to lives and livelihoods. A trend of shrinking civic space is laid plain in the new CIVICUS and Publish What You Pay report “Against All Odds” — 109 countries saw serious violations of civic space in 2015, while a wide range of countries have introduced new legal restrictions on NGOs. The report also draws on Global Witness’ recent “On Dangerous Ground” report, which documents the killing of 185 rights defenders in 2015 alone.

Despite this sobering backdrop, at Open Up we also had the opportunity to reflect on how far the open government movement had come. We produced a timeline, highlighting some of the globally significant milestones achieved. This includes early precursors such as Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act in 1766, which laid the foundations for access to information rights around the world. But it focused on the last decade, with developments such as President Obama’s Open Government Directive in 2009 and the founding of the Open Government Partnership in 2011. Even 2016 had some notable contributions, not least the release of the Panama Papers and the Anti-Corruption Summit in London.

Participants observed the predominance of political commitments and initiatives, while implementation of these was often less evident. This is particularly worrying considering the changing of the guard in many of countries that championed open government — Brazil, the Philippines, UK, and US to mention a few.

A serious question for the movement is how to put these changes on a sustainable footing. 2017 needs to be the year of implementation if the open government movement is to deliver on its promise and also help to stop that pendulum from swinging too far back towards a closed world. Now that significant (though incomplete) progress has been made on transparency, we hope that energies are increasingly focused on using that information to strengthen policy-making and actually improve people’s lives.

 

For more insights from Open Up 2016, watch speakers and attendees share their hopes for the future of open government and what’s needed to support the movement as it tackles serious challenges to progress.