As asserted by Jeremy Bentham nearly two centuries ago, “[I]n the same proportion as it is desirable for the governed to know the conduct of their governors, is it also important for the governors to know the real wishes of the governed.” Although Bentham’s historical call may come across as obvious to some, it highlights one of the major shortcomings of the current open government movement: while a strong focus is given to mechanisms to let the governed know the conduct of their governors (i.e. transparency), less attention is given to the means by which the governed can express their wishes (i.e. citizen engagement).Continue reading
As much as I would like to offer a simple definitive answer to the question, I have to say instead that it depends; particularly when democratic institutions and processes are being established and corresponding norms, values and practices are evolving. This view is based on 20 years working at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to increase organized citizen engagement, as a means of deepening democracy so that governments deliver a better quality of life for citizens. This work has provided a number of lessons regarding the relationship between citizen engagement, transparency and government accountability.Continue reading
Unlike the others in this series who have been working on the ground to implement transparency policies and initiatives, I have not. My background is in political science, so I’m going to do something that political scientists often do. I’m going to theorize and I’m going to offer a typology.
Though we tend to talk about accountability as if it is one thing, I think there are actually three types of government accountability that we care about: preference accountability, character accountability, and performance accountability. And each of these has its own relationship to citizen engagement. By better understanding this, we can better understand the citizen engagement – transparency – accountability nexus.Continue reading
The term civic engagement can be defined in a variety of ways. For the purposes of this conversation let’s say it consists of someone’s involvement in matters of public concern. Let’s also say that citizen engagement refers specifically to the involvement of individuals as opposed to civil society organizations.
What are the different ways that citizens engage? How does the shape of their engagement influence the shape of any government accountability that might come from it? I’ve noticed a few different types of engagement - and each type appears to have different repercussions for accountability. Here are three:Continue reading
Transparency is a slippery concept but important enough that it should be handled with some degree of precision. Unfortunately, the concept is often stretched out of shape and credit-hungry policymakers adopt transparency policies with little regard for preconditions. Here I’m going to take a few positions on preconditions, and my underlying point is that transparency is highly contingent. In order for transparency policies to work we need to take a more cautious approach to conceptualizing ‘transparency’ and to understanding the incentives of supplying and demanding transparency.Continue reading
Transparency and accountability are so often discussed in the same breath that it’s not uncommon to find them treated as synonyms. The same is increasingly true of openness and transparency. Yet these three terms, openness, transparency and accountability each refer to distinct parts of a process of bringing about change, and there can be gaps, failures and frustrations at each step of the way. Governments engaging with open data often presenting this as equivalent to transparency. Yet as Larsson writes“Openness might… be thought of as a characteristic of the organization, whereas transparency also requires external receptors capable of processing the information made available” (Larsson, 1998). That is to say, openness doesn’t necessarily lead to transparency unless the information made available is both usable, and there are people capable of using it. This makes the transparency relationship one with two parties: the institution being ‘open’, and the receiver able to make sense of the information provided, encouraging us to ask who an institution is becoming transparent too. For example, greater transparency to elites might have very different effects from transparency that also reaches grassroots communities and a broader base of citizens.Continue reading
Before delving into how transparency policies work, and under which conditions, we need to unpack what these terms mean for the extractive industry. Transparency policies and interventions are designed to bring light to aspects of natural resource management which have been shrouded in secrecy. This can include the basis on which a certain company was chosen for a project or the tax payments a company has made. Making this information available empowers citizens to ask how their revenues were spent or why a contract went to a certain company. This helps prevent deliberate mismanagement (giving a company a contract because your brother-in-law owns it) and also mismanagement due to lack of competence (local authorities not properly collecting taxes). Our goal is ultimately for all citizens to benefit from their natural resources. Without transparency, this isn’t possible. How can you know a community is receiving the correct amount for its natural resources, if you don’t know how much a company has paid in taxes? Transparency works through small and incremental steps, not as a silver bullet. Transparency policies enable and empower actors to ask the right questions and supports them in their campaign for change.Continue reading
Change is hard, and slow in coming. As Weber famously said, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” When things do change, they change for a reason. They key for us is figuring out why, and what role transparency plays in that process. The theory of change that I subscribe to is one in which outcomes change when incentives change for key stakeholders. In this light, we must evaluate transparency against its ability to alter the incentives for actors within a system.Continue reading