“Global Open Gov: What’s The Secret Sauce?”

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Today’s guest blog is a three-part series from Matt Rosenberg. Matt is founder and editor of Public Data Ferret, a project of the non-profit Public Eye Northwest in Seattle, Washington.

U.S. President Barack Obama this autumn joined with other global leaders to formally unveil the Open Government Partnership as the United Nations met in New York City. Funding for the partnership so far is $733,500 from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, $350,000 from Google and in-kind contributions from the U.S. government, World Bank Institute and others. The eight charter members have already formalized their commitment to the core principles of disclosure, engagement, integrity, innovation and accountability. The eight are the Year One co-leaders the U.S. and Brazil, plus Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Another 38 countries are committed to joining, many from eastern and northern Europe but also seven from South and Central America, four from Africa and three from the Middle East. An important step in the partnership’s agenda will come at a March 2012 Brazil meeting with the presentation by each new member of an open government plan of their own, against which future actions can be measured.

The New York event gave rise to the expected lofty statements. In a speech, Philippines President Benigno S. Acquino III, remarked: “This is what democracy is all about: having a government disciplined enough to imbibe in itself the principles of transparency, accountability, and citizen involvement-the necessary preconditions to poverty alleviation and inclusive and sustainable economic growth.”

Who could be against imbibing that? But in an open society the media don’t always parrot the party line. Only the day prior, news reporters had chastised the White House in print for an advance briefing on the Open Government Partnership by State Department officials who insisted on being described only as “Senior Administration Official 1” and “Senior Administration Official 2”. Standard operating procedure in most high-level briefings, true. But, implied the reaction – from the Associated Press, Tech President, and Politico, to name a few – rather discordant for a big “transparency” initiative. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that the gap between words and deeds on U.S. open government efforts had drawn notice.

The day after the partnership’s formal unveiling, J. Nicholas Hoover of Information Week wrote:

…the Obama administration’s commitment to open government hasn’t always lived up to its rhetoric. For example, the White House has aggressively pursued whistleblowers and leakers of information, and in court cases has regularly used the defense that certain data must be shielded from the public as state secrets. (A March 2011) event recognizing Obama for a commitment to open government was ironically closed to the press…Congress’ record in recent years has also been mixed. For example, while the websites of congressional committees now nearly universally stream congressional hearings, Congress has slashed a key source of funding for transparency efforts. Federal court records are also difficult to access online, and are often available only behind a paywall. The new National Action Plan and international partnership on open government are positive additional steps pointing toward increased transparency, but will ultimately be judged by their execution, and not the initial plans.

Exactly right. Success for OGP will begin with helping member nations understand how to best harness the passion and capacity of disparate ground-level actors – particularly NGOs, local governments, journalists, students, engaged citizens, artists and social media users. To complement important data they already have on the communications and personal technology preferences of constituents, OGP nations should commission independent surveys on how the civic landscapes in their respective nations are perceived at home.

This qualitative harvesting must be incisive and unflinching because real conditions on the ground greatly shape implementation of open government. Earlier this year I led a conversation on transparency with mid-career government officials from Yemen, Tunisia, Guineau, Djibouti, India, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Lithuania and South Korea, who were among the enrollees in a year-long program as Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, in Seattle. The dominant concern of the group was how to develop a flexible model for building open government systems, keeping in mind widely varying socio-political environments in different nations. Participants identified some of the big questions that need to guide any open government visioning at national scale. These fell into two broad areas.

  1. Political culture. Are political corruption and cronyism an animating concern? How is the national government experienced, on the whole, by the populace? As an authoritative patriarch which discourages close scrutiny? As despotic and dangerous, or unstable? As a work in progress, or  in the best case as genuinely transparent, strategic and collaborative? Do the principles of universal human rights have purchase, and is there true freedom of the press or not?
  2. Education, economy and technology. What is the state of education in the country – do scientific and secular views hold sway or not? Are higher ed and institutional R&D in a healthy state, and is there a burgeoning community of public-spirited software developers? Is the economy open or state-run?  What are the particulars of technology adoption and access across class lines?

The answers will help guide whether an  open government planning process can even be credibly launched in a given nation, and how; or whether it may be wiser to take a more incremental approach.

Read the rest of Matt’s post tomorrow…

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