“Global Open Gov: What’s The Secret Sauce?” (Part 2)


In this second  in a three-part series, guest blogger Matt Rosenberg continues to reflect on the Open Government Partnership

Egypt, for instance, could hardly be expected to commit now to a formal national plan for open government nor is it yet part of OGP. But as the country sorts out its post-Mubarak political future it’s already evident that crowd-sourced data, literally from the street, are being used to push for social and government reforms. Women in Cairo are using a site called Harass Map, built on the open-source platform Ushahidi, to document widespread and traditionally tolerated sexual harassment. Reports can be texted, e-mailed or tweeted, to be integrated into the growing and mapped compendium of uncivil behavior. Categories include rape-sexual assault, indecent exposure, stalking or following, touching, sexual invites, ¬†phone calls, comments, catcalls, and ogling.

India is not a member of the Open Government Partnership and given that government corruption is still considered a notorious scourge there, any state-stamped transparency scheme would be met with skepticism. Yet that hasn’t prevented a vibrant community of reformers from adapting new tools to an old concern. The transparency site ipaidabribe.com collects firsthand reports on the intimidation by government officials of businesses and citizens through informally-mandated payoffs, and offers related data analytics. It was created by Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based non-profit focused on quality of life and citizenship in urban India. In the Central Gondwana region of India, tribal members report on and learn about problems that citizens encounter with government, through a mobile phone voice portal called CGNet Swara. It has a Web hub and journalists to vet and edit reports. The service’s impacts include seeding mainstream overage and sometimes corrective action on problems with worker compensation, food security, public safety and resource extraction. Recognizing the vital role of local intelligence, CGNet Swara has branched into training citizen journalists. India’s Association for Democratic Reforms, or ADR, is a pioneering open government group in the country, which has successfully won the right for voters to know the financial, criminal and educational backgrounds of candidates for office. In a country where reformers sadly note that many candidates are criminals, this matters. The information is made available via Short Message Service on mobile phones. ADR also monitors courts and elections, provides counsel to officials on best practices, and reports on a wide range of transparency and corruption issues.

In India open government is a bottom-up endeavor. Perhaps, as the old saying goes: if the people will lead, then the leaders will follow. Which isn’t to say leadership from officialdom can’t become transformative. One national data initiative unveiled in 2011 has attracted broad notice in “open” circles but it will take time to gauge its social utility. It was launched this summer by the Kenyan government, which will be joining the Open Government Partnership. The Kenyan open data portal covers a wide range of economic, government spending, health, education and other topics and pointedly emphasizes opportunities to drill-down to the state, regional and local level. There are maps and fact sheets, charts and tables and raw data for developers to create new apps. Community apps developed from initiative data so far include tools to scrutinize energy use and progress on Community Development Fund and World Bank projects, and to map and categorize constituent service needs. An especially useful mash-up is BOOST, which presents annual spending in the provinces side-by-side with demographic, poverty and public health indicators such as percent of households with dirt floors, or connections to the main sewer line; and percent of population that has never attended school, or is of pre-primary age. While young, Kenya’s initiative shows how trust and collaboration might grow through open data, although that is just one aspect of the transparency agenda. In contrast, Ukraine, another of the 38 nations joining OGP, is trying to get to first base, by establishing rules of law and building civil society, as I learned when I met with a Ukraine delegation visiting Seattle earlier this year through the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and The World Affairs Council – Seattle. The visitors included representatives of Ukraine NGOs working, variously, to provide legal aid to citizens in property disputes with government; to strengthen the climate for small and medium-sized business by modernizing the tax code and fighting government corruption; and to promote freedom of association and civil society organizations. Other participants represented organizations working to fight media censorship, and to develop civic capacity projects targeted to youth. Knowing their animating concerns, and listening to their questions – which showed keen interest in matters as granular as the posting online of local city council meeting agendas before the meetings are held – I could begin to sense what a more genuinely open government in Ukraine would need to look like.

But for the administration of President Victor F. Yanukovich to have any credibility on open government, a major course correction is needed. As two former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine observed last March, the nation’s reputation for openness is suffering because of a “corrupt, politically-driven judiciary” and state prosecutors doing Yanukovich’s political bidding. In October a show trial conviction of his political rival and former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko added to that perception, sparking vociferous protests and threatening the nation’s integration into the European Union. Even before the verdict, the case was being read as, in the words of one expert on European governance, “an extremely worrying sign that (Yanukovich) is moving to exert a monopolistic control over politics.” The road to credibility for Ukraine is littered with larger boulders. Consider the conditions described in Ukraine via Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index 2010” report issued this year. Ukraine scored only 2.4 on a scale of 10, far more at the “highly corrupt” end of things than the “very clean.” Key concerns included: murkiness about the difference between political and government workers; weak laws on conflict of interest for public workers; lack of competition for high-level public sector jobs; poor legal rights for public servants arbitrarily fired; law enforcement agencies and a judiciary which don’t prosecute corruption effectively; a lack of whistleblower protections for public employees; and a lack of annual performance and accountability reports required of the legislature and government agencies.

However, farther from Kiev are promising signs. Open government in Ukraine is building from the grassroots up. Earlier this year, Albertville, Minnesota City Administrator Larry Cruse was part of a local delegation of public officials which visited counterparts in Boryspill, Ukraine in an exchange program intended to build skills and capacity around open government. (A group from Boryspil visited Minnesota in late September.) Cruse lived with a local family for a week and immersed himself in local governance. Unlike like smaller and non-partisan municipal bodies in the U.S., the local council of Boryspil had 48 members from 13 political parties. But Cruse observed that caucuses and negotiations to form issue-specific coalitions helped provide order to the process, and that open government in Boryspil had a strong face-to-face component. Cruse wrote:

A good portion of our time was spent in strategic planning sessions with anywhere from 20 to 50 people representing elected officials, city staff and citizens of Boryspil. Throughout the day, the large groups were broken up into small sub-groups to discuss various topics, exchange ideas and then report their finding back to the larger group for further discussions and consensus building. There were elected officials and staff mixed together with members of the community at all the functions. The students and community members were delighted and emotionally moved to be sharing their thoughts and ideas alongside of the Mayor and other officials.

Read the last of these series tomorrow…