OpenGov Voices: 5 lessons from my Sunlight exchange

A smiling Oscar Montiel.
Oscar Montiel of Codeando México.

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to spend some time working with the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C. For geeks interested in making government more accountable and more effective — like yours truly — this experience is analogous to going to space camp for a 10-year-old who wants to be an astronaut. Having the opportunity to see things happen, with people who have been working on transparency and accountability for longer than you’ve known what openness means, was an amazing experience. I’ll try to sum up my experience in five items, as general as possible and adapted to a Latin American context.

1. We can’t be one sided forever

In Mexico, we have this vision of civil society as “the good guys” and government as “the bad guys.” This creates a divide between these two, and usually prevents people in government from seeing partners in people outside their ranks. The organizations and government agencies I talked to in D.C. understand that we need a two-sided approach if we want to have a government that is effective in the 21st Century.

I know this might not be representative of the way most officials or NGOs think, but, given the success that this focus has had with the initiatives I met — from the big, international projects of the Open Government Partnership or the local initiatives of the NDI in different countries, to the policy work that the Sunlight Foundation does in the U.S. — we should aim to convince and work with the elected officials that can actually help make things happen. Real changes come when both sides get involved. Find a champion inside government and figure out a way to scale. Squashing the preconceived notion of good guys versus bad guys will definitely allow us to be more effective in the way we deliver our projects.

Fortunately, in Codeando México we have found a nice group of champions in various levels of government willing to do things differently, taking ownership of projects and engaging in a real conversation with hackers and citizens in a variety contexts. If the channels aren’t exactly open in your country or community, there are different ways to engage with officials that don’t necessarily have to do with tech (see point 3 below).

2. Allow people to say what they think, but make that thought count

Lately, we’ve been seeing reforms aimed at improving the economy and fighting corruption, but there are still possible conflicts of interest in high levels of government (and what might even be an act of censorship for media that questions some of these acts). And still, most times in Mexico we limit civic engagement to voting or signing petitions via Facebook. And people are actually offended when their 50,000 signatures don’t stop a decision that is clearly sketchy.

Would it be possible to engage people in different ways, perhaps with software like Madison to co-create new laws and changes? Would it be possible to disseminate better information in more effective ways so that if people decide to only engage through voting, they do it in a more informed way?

We still haven’t completely figured out how to do this in Mexico. A first attempt to achieve this close contact with laws came with Explica la Ley (“Explain the Law”), but closing the cycle and making that platform something actionable will be the next step.

3. Build with, not for

Civic technology should be about people first, not tech. What this means is that we should engage with communities that existed there before we found a specific problem. Consider platforms that aren’t necessarily tech-oriented or low-tech solutions before building shiny new software. If, in Mexico, we want to build a tool to defend the human right to access water throughout the country, we can’t build something for the people defending that. We must work with them. The organisations and communities defending that right probably know everyone in government who can actually decide on that subject, and technology is probably only a small part of it. Get to know the people who can help you achieve your goals, help them achieve theirs. Do it together, even if you don’t succeed, at least you will have new allies for next time.

This works on every level. Whether it is our hacker communities working on specific local issues or building new apps that work on a national level, we’ll have to get close to the communities first, then code later.

4. Find out who your community really is

If we want to build a community that includes as many people as possible, that’s fine. By partnering with community groups who want tech-based solutions, the Code for D.C. Brigade has been doing that really well. However, most of the work we do can be very specific to a niche audience; I can’t think of my family discussing the importance of FOI laws in Mexico over dinner. But this is ok, since they’re not our target community on that subject. If we find our niche includes only NGOs or government officials, that’s also fine. That’s actually one of the biggest strengths of the Sunlight Foundation, working along with governments and questioning them, but also working with other organizations who will eventually make things actionable with a bigger crowd.

So, we should try to make up our mind and work with that niche. The effectiveness of an organization can depend on it. In Codeando México, we are still figuring this out, but the need to do it is clear — otherwise our efforts might lose strength by trying to cover too many fields.

5. Be as sustainable as possible

Most of our organizations are nonprofit. That is fantastic, and it provides access to many great funds and grants. But grants don’t last forever. If you can, find a way to become self-sustained. In Latin America, part of being “the good guys” prevents us from monetizing some of the great pieces of software we create. The possibility of having money shouldn’t stop us from doing things. Once we figure this out, we’ll be one step closer to being sustainable. It’s not easy, but it’s healthy. The sooner we do it, the better.

Those are, in a nutshell the lessons I learned while in D.C. I know the context may change, but they may help us get a handle on how to address the questions we are asking in Latin American countries. Any questions? Comments? You can contact me via twitter or send me an email.

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