Friday 23 October 2015

What does openness look like: a response

MAVC has just posted an interesting take on what it regards as the key issues to consider when trying to understand what open government actually means, ahead of next weeks OGP Summit in Mexico. Their main question is “will all this openness actually change things”? Nailed it. But while they are headed in the right direction I worry that it’s what they don’t talk about rather than what they do, which indicates that some initiatives still really don’t quite get it.

To get to the answer of whether openness changes things, the questions they pose are threefold and set as metrics with which to measure the relative impact of OGP. Let’s have a look at the questions. Stating rightly that “Too often, we conflate openness with provision of information, or with the thinking that if everyone knows what government commitments are, or if budgets and datasets are published online, then that’s a commitment fulfilled”, they list:
  • What are you publishing?/ Do people care – who is asking for this information? / Is it in a format people can understand?
  • Where are you publishing it? / Who has access? Let’s be clear: the internet does not operate in universally accessible languages, nor is everyone actually able to afford, or get access.
  • Does this information actually help people improve people’s lives, or is it just PR so governments and organisations can say they are open and get an international pat on the back?
Oh dear. Are we really answering a question as fundamental as whether openness will actually change things, with issues about formatting, accessible languages and PR? The third inquiry offers the most hope with an opaque reference to improving people’s lives but I would have hoped to see something here about reaching and engaging marginalised groups, providing inclusive space for collective action, guarding civic space or simply just passing the Amina Test of relevance to the average citizen’s experience.

The MAVC article ambitiously goes on to try to ‘redefine openness’ as a tool to achieve change. They argue:
“Openness should mean that government plans are shaped not just by politicians, but are genuinely inclusive. It should mean that huge datasets are not published without thinking about who can actually understand them. It should mean publishing not just the ‘safe’ information, but also information that can be used to actually track what government is doing, what it is spending and achieving on behalf of its citizens.

It should mean that governments are open to change, to new ideas and criticism”.
Well, who could argue with any of that? And that’s the problem here. Let’s unpack things for a minute.

‘Genuinely inclusive’ – yay. But who defines that and what are we talking about. Women? Ethnic groups? LGBT? Disabled people? Political dissidents? One of the reasons statements like this are so easy to make but are so easily swept aside is that as soon as you start talking specifics you start to come across very sensitive subjects very quickly. If you are a gay man in several OGP member states you run the risk of being stuck on the front page of a newspaper, being locked up or attacked. If you are a political dissident in Azerbaijan you risk being locked up or murdered. That is the scale of the challenge in many places. And if the world leaders who proclaimed the SDG 2030 agenda were serious when they pledged to ‘leave no-one behind’ then they are going to need to take these open government approaches, defined in SDG16, to some very fragile, volatile and dangerous places to be a citizen. Have we done enough thinking about how to do that?

Publishing ‘huge datasets’ without thinking who can understand them. Well, yes.

Not just publishing ‘safe’ information. Safe for who? MAVC think it’s the government – they go on to talk about information on government activity, expenditure and performance. It might be worth considering just how ‘safe’ it is for citizens living in environments characterised by elite resource capture, security forces that operate with near impunity and endemic social exclusion – not to mention fragility and violence – to even contemplate using such information. I would politely suggest not very safe at all.

Governments ‘should be open to change, to new ideas and criticism’. Again, yay. But what do we mean? Most western donors would frame that in terms of ‘democracy’ or ‘democratisation’, and that’s reflected in heavy funding for programmes to institute elections or short term governance initiatives. But the evidence tells us that fundamental change doesn’t happen either through elections or short term initiatives, least of all those that rely on ‘fixes’ or ‘feedback loops’. Change in the citizen-State relationship is the result of contestation, challenge and evolution. The Word Development Report of 2011 posited that this process should be thought of in terms of three decades – and that’s without interruptions like natural disasters, economic shocks or conflict.

Asking tougher questions

I’ll be applying a tougher lens to what I see in Mexico next week. I will want to hear how world leaders and civil society elites have sought to develop thinking about how to define processes by which citizens and their governments can collectively define what their problems actually are, including highly sensitive ones like FGM, violence against women, corruption and exclusion; what success would really look like and a future that they can jointly sign up to. That would mean Amina having confidence that her daughter would not have her education stolen by corrupt local elites. Or these folk in Liberia having confidence in their local police force as they build a sustainable future out of conflict.

I’d like to hear about whether those involved in the opendata discourse have started to think about how to really understand and respond to marginalisation, exclusion and violence as much as whether standard service delivery projects are running efficiently and reported on using an app.

There are really exciting possibilities to do some of this stuff. Bringing people who are not currently part of the opengov conversation into it would be a good start. Engaging in collaboration on projects which are designed according to what the problems are – as they are understood by local people – and then seek to learn about what works, why and how. Bringing super clever techies together with people who routinely do amazing work in building bridges not of data or technology but of human trust between communities used to decades of conflict and reform minded officials in government. There is simply no point trying to be more ‘inclusive’ and efficient, with well presented ‘datasets’ if there is a profound deficit of legitimacy and trust, within a history of violence and exclusion. You need to tackle both in creative ways and over a long period. But that will mean thinking a lot further outside of the box than seems to be happening in many places at the moment.

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