Lackadaisical Media Coverage of Open Government Partnership Launch

The Open Government Partnership Initiative was officially launched this week in New York. Originally conceived by President Obama to promote government transparency globally, the meeting was co-chaired by the US President and Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil and was attended by the other founding heads of state from Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the UK.

This international initiative aims at securing concrete action plans from governments across the globe to promote transparency, expose corruption, increase citizen participation, and leverage web 2.0 technologies to make government more efficient, responsive, and accountable.

I’d like to make two points.

First, this event was very important. The meeting of 8 heads of state committed to information access, transparency, accountability and citizen participation is giant milestone in political history, never mind the history of open government. Additionally, another 40 countries (including Canada) have committed to joining the Open Government Partnership.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude (the UK representative) expressed the importance of the Open Government Partnership (with a bit of humour thrown in): “It is a law of politics that all oppositions are passionately in favour of transparency. In office governments tend to favour transparency and openness in their first 12 months when what they are exposing are their predecessor’s errors. After that, it is altogether less comfortable. There is nothing cozy, fluffy or soft about transparency. It’s hard-edged. It needs to be rigorous. It gets governments out of their comfort zone. It enables the citizen to hold the government to account. Not just every few years at election time, but week by week and month by month. And in embracing transparency, we volunteer to having our feet held to the fire on a daily basis. Today is a pivotal moment.” (Listen to the rest of Minister Maude’s address at 46:38 in the video at the end of post).

Second point I’d like to make is that this event was not well covered in the U.S./International media. For example, I did a search on “Open Government Partnership” with the news source being the New York Times over the last couple of days and came up with a big goose egg …

When I did the same thing for CNN, two pieces of journalism appeared. One on a botched group photo because President Obama had obscured the face of a person to his right when he raised his hand in a wave. The second was a behind the scenes look at the travel escapades of journalists following the President on the day of the meeting. Really, the President of the US and 8 world leaders meet on an initiative that will change the face of the world and nothing of substance about the meeting in the two of the largest media sources in the world? Weird.

Good media coverage or not the Open Government Partnership launch was a great day for global democracy, government transparency and citizen participation, a movement I fully expect to continue growing in the years to come. As Minister Francis Maude said in his address, “The shutters are being thrown back and the light is flooding in. And today we are at an inflection point. Today the demand for openness is unstoppable.”

Open Government Risk Aversion one of Government’s Greatest Risks

As we look across the open government landscape, we see shining beacons of leadership and success. Certainly since the election of Obama and the subsequent appointment of the first U.S. Federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, the U.S. Government has lead the world in the technology-enabled transparency.  The U.S. drives performance and opens data to engage citizens, businesses, and policymakers to create citizen-centered apps for a fraction of the cost of traditional development. The U.S. open government strategy has saved U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars in I.T. spending over the last two and a half years by engaging citizens to develop hundreds of innovative, lightweight and cost-effective apps based on open data.

The U.K. also embraces open data and open government to allow government to be more transparent, efficient and responsive to the needs of its citizens. Data.gov.uk allows citizens to easily search and consume data, share applications, find developers and request new data.

Closer to home, British Columbia was the first provincial government in Canada to launch an open data website (data.gov.bc.ca) with a progressive data license, over 2,500 data sets, and tools for non-developers to create applications. On the same day, BC launched a redesigned, citizen-centric website (www.gov.bc.ca) and a new, open information portal to proactively release information that is requested through the FOI process.

However, a quick environmental scan reveals that the majority of governments in Canada (federal, provincial, territorial and municipal), and indeed the world, are resisting the movement to open government. Although, according to Mr. Kundra, there are “21 nations, 29 states, 11 cities and several international organizations” that have initiated open data platforms, most have not yet implemented an open government policy.

Interesting, when you consider the following benefits of open government.

  1. Open government stimulates economic growth and saves government money, in a time of extreme economic and budgetary pressures. Open government:
    1. Enables government to do more with less by leveraging technology and engaging its greatest resource – citizens.
    2. Assists in the development of new products, services and businesses.
    3. Encourages research and development and educational and scientific communities
    4. Replaces many large, costly IT projects (which take years to develop and often underperform because business requirements and technology change in the time lag for implementation) with smaller, citizen-centric applications that deliver incremental, focused business value early in the project lifecycle.
    5. Reduces the requirement of what can be expensive FOI requests with a proactive FOI strategy.
    6. Stimulates the economy by providing jobs to small, start-up technology firms which leverage open data to create value for citizens and by providing more agile, responsive services to businesses to help them be more competitive in the global marketplace.
    7. Increases accountability and reduces expenditures that do not provide appropriate return on investment for citizens with public scrutiny of government spending.
  2. Open government makes government more transparent and accountable and drives. Open government:
    1. Engages citizens, NGO’s and businesses in the consultation, deliberation, decision-making and implementation of public policy, to drive more effective and responsive results based on supporting data.
    2. Reduces the risk of ‘hacktivism’ (politically-motivated hacking into computer systems) and political unrest because citizens and interest groups are engaged in the political decision-making process.
  3. Open government greatly improves services to citizens by becoming more citizen centric and collaborative.

Risk aversion and fear of the unknown thwarts public institutions from realizing the benefits of open government. I find this interesting because it is risk aversion in the area of open government that could be one of government’s greatest risks. Government’s risk aversion to open government leads to greater risk of:

  1. Real or perceived government corruption
  2. Poor investment management decisions
  3. Alienation of citizens, businesses and interest groups
  4. An underperforming economy
  5. Not getting re-elected

Vancouver Riots, Democracy and Gov 2.0

In my last post, I wrote about how Gov 2.0 has the potential to allow for a more authentic democracy where all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Connected, informed citizens will no longer tolerate secretive and paternalistic government. I still believe this. However, my faith was shaken somewhat yesterday by the riots, looting and mayhem we had in the streets of Vancouver.

Gov 2.0 presupposes trust, and trust is a two-way street between government and citizens. Unfortunately, events like the rioting that happened yesterday undermine democracy and support command-and-control advocates in government, justifying to some the expansion of a police state. It paints a picture of citizens that need to be taken care of, to be controlled.

Image from yfrog/Lisa Johnson

Yesterday evening after the hockey game in Vancouver we saw the opposite of wisdom of the crowds. We saw the stupidity of the masses. Sociologists tell us that riots are fuelled by factors such as alcohol consumption, frustration, hypermasculinity, large and dense crowds, in-game player violence, and mob mentality. People lose their inhibitions and sense of right and wrong.  A few instigators can be highly influential under the right circumstances. And that was what happened last night: a few instigators (some say organized) incited a riot that made a mess of downtown Vancouver.

On the other hand, Gov 2.0 empowers citizens. We are empowered by our voices, knowledge, connections, and ability to organize. Even in the wake of the riots instigated by a relatively few hoodlums, the people of Vancouver came together over social networks to share digital evidence of rioters to help press charges and to organize to help with the massive clean-up. Citizen’s started Facebook groups like “Post Riot Cleanup” (13,352 likes), “Vancouver Riot Pics” (75,333) and “Shame the Stanley Cup Rioters” (2,077).  Meanwhile, on Twitter people expressed their outrage at the situation … and #embarrassment. So many volunteers turned up to clean up today (12,000) that many had to be turned away. Self-organization of citizens in this way restores my faith in the potential for Gov 2.0, open government, and the people that make it happen.

How do we organize government so that citizens can participate?

We are in the midst of a digital social revolution. Changes that are so dramatic in the Arab spring also wash upon the shores of democratic countries, though to a considerably lesser degree. But it is a revolution nevertheless. Just as we are unaware of the earth rotating around the sun at approximately 67,000 MPH, we are desensitized to the lightening-fast changes to our digital world and their social implications. The social, participatory web is enabling an informed citizenry and the democratization of knowledge and power.

At the same time, we are faced with complex, global and potentially life-threatening issues that impact our environment, economy and society. With the advancements of social media, the question that we all should be asking is: How do we organize government so that citizens can participate more fully in the decision-making and execution of initiatives that impact our lives, the lives of our children, and the future of our planet?

Democracy comes from the Greek rule by the people and it is a form of government where all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. In perspective, it is useful to remember Winston Churchill’s words: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

One of the problems we have with democracy is that citizens do not in fact have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. I see three important ways we can redesign government so that people can participate more effectively.

  1. Use Gov 2.0 to lower the transaction costs for citizens to participate fully with government
  2. Make government data open by default
  3. Ensure that government is transparent

Today, I want to comment on point 1.

1. Use Gov 2.0 to lower the transaction costs for citizens to participate fully with government

According to Don Lenihan’s public engagement framework, Rethinking the Public Policy Process, citizens participate with government in three processes: consultation, deliberation, and public engagement.

The consultation process is when citizens are consulted and public opinion is collected in wikis, blogs, Facebook pages, public hearings, telephone interviews, or online surveys, to give some examples. Then, government makes a decision based on that information. Although sometimes productive, this process is not effective when we are considering highly contentious and/or complex issues.

The deliberation process is when citizens contribute to the discussion on how to proceed with what is discovered in consultation process. Participants address issues, negotiate, seek synergies and/or compromises, and arrive at strategies to proceed in light of differing opinions. Government then makes the final decision.

The public engagement process is when citizens contribute to (or even lead/facilitate) the consultation process, deliberation process, policy and legislation decisions, and/or actions to address the issue. The public and government are partners throughout the entire public engagement process.

The social and interactive and participatory nature of Gov 2.0 makes it a natural enabler of all three forms of public involvement in government policy process. We have some good examples of consultation, deliberation, and public engagement via web 2.0 (i.e., http://www.livingwatersmart.ca/blog/, http://challenge.gov/, and http://www.federalregister.gov/), but surely this is just the beginning. We need to design government so it engages with citizens to participate more fully in making decisions and creating policy that impacts their lives.

One of the challenges we face, for example, is identity. When you log onto your bank account, the bank knows it is you who is transferring money into another account. If government had a similar high assurance of a citizen’s identity, it would enable high value Gov 2.0 services and support more effective participation for citizens. A verified identity would:

  • Allow citizens to access secure online services such as health information and passport renewal
  • Provide more credibility and lay a foundation of trust for online participants in the deliberation, negotiation, and collaboration of public policy
  • Enable online voting for public policy decisions and even the election of government representatives

We are in the midst of a digital revolution with profound social implications. Government, being one of our most entrenched institutional organizations, has a challenge and opportunity to grow with this change.

Citizens want a voice and stake in their government. They want to know government is responsive to their needs. People will no longer tolerate a secretive, paternalistic, ‘we-know-better’ government. The opportunity for government is to involve citizens and earn their trust. Real change will only occur when the public is involved and therefore willing to take shared ownership and responsibility for the issues that affect their lives.