“Global Open Gov: What’s The Secret Sauce?” (Part 3)

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This is the third and last part of Matt’s post on the Open Government Partnership

National governments seeking to become open should look not only to smart NGOs, software developers, students and journalists, but to town councils, which generally tend to face more direct pressure for accountability on a daily basis in their communities.

Although varying conditions may dictate different strategies, the ultimate destination is a common one. Any government that wants to call itself open must provide free and accessible public information on taxation, draft and adopted budgets, and actual year-end spending including contract awards. There should be full and open disclosure on government bidding processes, job openings, salaries and benefits, court proceedings and legislation prior to and after passage. Also vital are sharing of key data on economic performance, public health conditions, and fair metrics of student and teacher performance at public schools. A lynchpin of open government is a trustworthy and transparent elections process including impartial and open adjudication of fraud allegations.

A next layer of transparency would include wide promotion of census data, and adopted laws which serve to daylight public records, lobbying, campaign contributions, and ethics and accountability oversight in government.

Girding the whole disclosure framework should be government reports and data created in machine-readable formats, and liberally posted online.

As OGP, its member nations and their domestic partners work to bring ambitious open government plans to life, here are a few more things they should bear in mind.

  • Crowd-sourced sites which accent the need for government response also require a formal and public adoption by government. Nobody wants to report into an abyss. “Open 311” sites which allow citizens to report and see resolution of cracked sidewalks, broken streetlights, gaping potholes, broken park equipment can be a huge force for building trust and engaging publics – if reports actually prompt action. To get to this point requires real collaboration between site developers, officialdom, and constituents.
  • Most people aren’t tech geeks, even in advanced economies. Although software developers are crucial partners, keep the needs of everyday constituents foremost. Throwing 400 government data sets online is not an open government policy. Track what developers do, if much of anything, with all those data sets once posted. How many actually get rendered into browser-friendly Web sites and easy mobile apps? How widely are the sites and apps used? And make sure to look beyond the open data craze no matter how well outcomes of data portals are tracked. As Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity, an OGP partner, blogs:

    Instead of fetishizing open data portals for the sake of having open data portals, I’d rather see governments incorporating open data as a way to address more fundamental structural challenges around extractives (through maps and budget data), the political process (through real-time disclosure of campaign contributions), or budget priorities (through online publication of budget line-items).

  • Another thing: impenetrable gov-speak has got to go. Written government communications including laws, regulations, audits, reports, contracts and more should be in plain language only.
  • The trend toward more and more data visualizations, audio and video is good if it’s user-focused. Videos of full meetings of legislative or regulatory bodies need should be indexed by main topics and include keyword-searchable transcripts. Prototypes are already emerging.
  • Reveal and revile censorship and intimidation of media and activists, first by highlighting the oversight work of organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and second, through vigorous state prosecution of those who seek to censor, threaten or otherwise intimidate reporters and activists. Hello, Mexico?

It’s a time of challenge, and of possibility. Every major development right now on the global political scene – including the financial meltdown in Europe, economic troubles in the U.S., the wave of pro-liberty uprisings in the Arab world, even the little noticed efforts of locals and NGOs to shepherd the tiny West African nation of Guineau-Bissau away from the despotic rule of drug profiteer-kleptocrats – intersects closely with the need for open, honest and accountable government. Because the need is so deep and broad, the Open Government Partnership represents an important attempt to bring a multilateral and official hue to the challenge.

But public officials who aspire to wring utility more than huzzahs out of open government initiatives would do well to heed the musty adage,”‘dance with them that brought you,” popular among the old-time ward-heelers of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

It’s just that the partners and the venue for the dance look a whole lot different these days.

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