This past weekend I attended a legislative data transparency conference in Paris, where parliamentary monitoring organizations from around the world converged to share ideas, identify common obstacles, and discuss a joint declaration on how we hope legislatures will open up. This was the second gathering of this kind that I’ve been involved in, following a conference in Washington, DC, this past spring at which the first draft of this legislative declaration was unveiled. (In the near future, we’ll have a lot more to say about the declaration, Sunlight’s role, and the overall project.)
While some organizations have been around for years, it is only recently that an international network of Internet-centric PMOs has begun to coalesce. I was struck by how many organizations have built substantive parliamentary monitoring websites as part of voluntary unpaid efforts of staff moonlighting from their day jobs, and that these efforts have been sustained over many years. This reminder was a striking contrast from a debate raging back in North America, where citizen-programmers were lumped in with other data transparency advocates as the tools of the well-to-do that merely serve to entrench power, not democratize it. (Surely there’s a role for access to quantitative as well as qualitative information, but that’s a debate for a different blogpost.)
While there are many questions about the future of our collective endeavor, I have none about the principles underpinning the release of government information to the public in a democratic society. It is only by the consent of the governed that governments have a right to exist, and for consent to be real it must be voluntary and informed. The sustenance of an informed debate is written into the US Constitution, and thrives in free societies around the world. While less inspirational, similar values require governments to maximize the utility of their actions, including minimizing costs to society incurred when useful information gathered at public expense is lost or unavailable.
When I think about how we externalize the costs of public goods, I cannot help but consider questions surrounding organizations dedicated to public access to and preservation of legislative information. (Many of these questions have been raised by others and are not original to me.)
Some questions are existential: how can these organizations build viable long-term funding mechanisms that do not undermine their raison d’être? To what extent will a multi-national effort enhance and empower actors in each country — and will it lower barriers to entry of new actors? How can successful advocacy efforts be paired with successful efforts to capture information to create a virtuous cycle that works for the organization and society?
Other questions are philosophical: is it good that these organizational efforts may change the balance between direct versus representative democracy? Where are the boundaries at which transparency encounters other principles of governance — such as the need for private deliberations, those matters of state that must be kept secret for security purposes, the protection of citizen privacy, and resource limitations — and how are these competing demands resolved?
And there are the pragmatic questions: how should we foster and develop staff inside government who understand the relationship amongst technology, transparency, and governance and can empower the government to lead? Given limited resources, how should government balance releasing information intended to improve services versus information aimed at making government accountable — or is this a false dichotomy? How do organizations encourage the government to institutionalize its role as information provider so that it becomes a part of business as usual? Are some societies constituted such that transparency can undermine some democratization efforts?
It is difficult to fully envision how the emergence of parliamentary monitoring organizations will change our systems of democratic self-governance. While we cannot predict how old power structures will adapt to these new realities, or how society will respond to increasingly accessible information about governance, it is through working together and making legislative information more widely available that we can hope to deepen the role that individuals play in shaping their societies.