One of the great challenges currently facing the public sector is working under the doctrine of Open Government. This initiative would go a long way toward making citizen participation and access to information by public agencies a reality.
What does Open Government involve?
The United States government, one of the forerunners of this initiative, published a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government in February 2009 describing it as a system designed to ensure public trust based on three principles:
- Transparency → enabling the public to have access to information on the government’s activities and decisions.
- Participation → promoting participation in the taking of political measures.
- Collaboration → encouraging cooperation across all levels of government, and between the government and non-profit organizations, companies and individuals in the private sector.
What is its current status?
The rate of penetration of Open Government is very uneven in the various government agencies, and it has yet to be universally adopted. Generally speaking, there is still much to be done At the worldwide scale, 2011 marked the creation of what was known as the Open Government Partnership (OGP) conceived to improve and implement actions that would lead to the maximum expression of the three principles of Open Government described above. These initiatives included national action plans and an independent assessment mechanism to monitor the progress of each of the governments involved. Currently, 60 countries (including Spain, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and the United States) are members of this alliance.
The advance of Open Government is now a reality for various government agencies who are already working under this doctrine at the local, national and international levels. However, it is still not as widespread as could be desired. Here we analyze which of the actions carried out so far make Open Government a reality, and which of them make it a utopia that will be hard to apply.
Reasons why it is already a reality
Open Government is not simply a need, it is a duty. The thirst for information by citizens and the media requires agile public agencies to provide access to the data requested. This can only be achieved by making a firm commitment to see its implementation through all levels of government. There is evidence to highlight that this step has already been taken:
- Public participation is the area in which most headway has been made so far. The arrival of the social networks (in the article ‘The relevance of social networks to public sector agencies’ we analyze this subject in detail) has created a climate of opinion around every action, measure and law that cannot be ignored by public sector agencies. Feedback with the citizen, opening suggestion boxes, publication of daily updates, etc. are all an essential part of the government’s strategy in the digital area. For example in Switzerland, when citizens go to the polling stations they do not only vote to elect their governors, but also on taxes, the abolition of the army, and mandatory vaccination.
- Collaboration is one of the main advantages of Open Government, as it streamlines cooperation between the different levels of government, and also favors interaction with other social agencies that can contribute greater value and the transfer of knowledge. As an example, we could mention what are known as the ‘horizontal initiatives’ taking place in Canada, which allow two or more organizations to work in partnership to achieve a common goal. Collaboration can be between public agencies (federal, local, etc.), or between agencies and private-sector organizations.
- Transparency is the Achilles’s heel of the Open Government initiatives, and probably one of the keys to whether it stands or falls. The fact of the matter is that governments are reluctant to share their data or decision-making processes with the citizens. We could take as an example the release of public data (Open Data) from Data.Gov.UK, a project currently in the beta stage implemented by the British government that gives access to information from central or local government.
Reasons why it is a utopia
Limits always need to be established when sharing knowledge or information, and particularly in the case of matters of state and government. Leaving aside matters of national security, who establishes the limits on what can be shared and what not? Would it be advisable for government agencies to have a checklist to establish a common line of action? There are reasons to think that Open Government is still a utopia:
- In the area of participation, while most public agencies are already present on the web 2.0 and on the social networks, they still need to do more to interact with the citizens. In many cases the public profiles are limited to disseminating information, overlooking the fact that communication is horizontal on the web, and the receiver of the message is not simply a passive spectator of these messages, but must engage with and debate the matter in hand. Participation must be multidirectional and establish a conversation with the public.
- The collaboration between government agencies and with third parties is not a fact. An excess of bureaucracy, the difficulty of sharing data between agencies and the replication of similar tasks are the main obstacles to be overcome before cooperation between public administrations can be streamlined. The agencies must evolve their mindset toward a system which prioritizes “adding together” through joint actions.
- And finally, we reiterate that transparency today continues tobe the greatest enemy of Open Government. The fear and ignorance of the paradigms and tools of Open Government must be resolved. Who decides what to share? Should all institutions be governed by the laws of transparency? Can the public administration refuse to provide information to citizens?
In short, the progressive universalization of access to the internet has undeniably meant that citizens today have more information and tools at their disposal to improve their knowledge; however there is little correlation between this access and the amount of information and public data available to users. Governments, unlike society, are lagging behind in sharing knowledge, creating debate on this knowledge, and encouraging the democratic process.
In recent years, cases of wholesale leaks of public documents such as WikiLeaks and the NSA (the Snowden case), have highlighted the fact that transparency is not among the principles governments abide by. These cases have made it more difficult for citizens and media professionals to gain access to information. This is why it is the right time for the debate on Open Government to move to center stage. Through citizens’ initiatives, through communities that disseminate knowledge, and above all, through parliamentary initiatives that move forward in this area. The job of ensuring that Open Government is a reality and not merely a utopian footnote is everyone’s responsibility.
Do you believe it’s possible to bring about an Open Government? Are there limits to transparency? Who decides what information to share? Do you know any more examples of public agencies that have set up Open Government initiatives?
María L. Núñez
Journalist, Madrid (Spain)