Open government: Let a thousand flowers of information bloom

Sunday September 25 2011

By Rakesh Rajani

Perhaps the most important reason we need open government, in a world marked by so much strife, is because we acutely need to build trust. Openness can bring governments and citizens together, cultivate shared understandings, and help solve our practical problems. 

It starts with sharing information.  

In Mexico, when the civil society group Fundar showed that services were not reaching women, that clinics were not open and that medicines meant to be free were anything but, the Ministry of Health used the evidence to negotiate a better deal with parliament and to take steps to save lives.  

Across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, through a citizen-led survey of almost 200,000 households, Uwezo has demonstrated that children still lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills, despite being in school, and is using the data to deepen accountability in education.  

In London and in New York, initiatives such as FixMyStreet and 311 allow citizens to inform city councils about potholes and broken street lights, and to ensure that they are fixed on time. Norway’s enormous oil wealth is prudently managed by, among other aspects, having declared it an explicit public asset whose revenues are transparent to all.  

Across the globe, governments and citizens alike are realising that sharing information helps get things done, and are using information platforms to draw on people to find new solutions.  

The Ushahidi platform is used to track service delivery in East Africa, disaster relief in Haiti, snow emergencies in Washington DC and many others. The US government’s site not only makes over 300,000 datasets available online, it invites people to create applications to mash the data, see patterns and create new knowledge it could never have done by itself. The Kenyan government has launched an open data site that allows users to visualise the state of the nation. Even the World Bank, long a target of open society advocates, receives 15,000 visitors daily on its data site, considered by some to be more valuable than the loans it provides. 

To be meaningful to citizens, information needs to be local, disaggregated. In India, the civil society group MKSS has democratized access to spending data by painting it on community walls, over 100,000 in the state of Rajasthan alone. Making information open allows ordinary citizens to audit public records, such as whether names of workers paid are real or fake and whether reported infrastructure exists in reality. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, citizen audits have uncovered fraud and theft of over $25 million, of which a fifth has already been recovered. Citizen involvement has proved so useful that the Controller and Auditor General has asked that social audits be conducted across India; and the Rural Development Minister has instructed that all expenditures be posted online and on community walls by this December.  

As important as dollars saved are, however, the true power of open government may be its effect on the public imagination. When citizens can monitor what’s going on, make comparisons and act, they gain a sense of purpose and control; a sense not only that things happen to us, but that we can make things happen; a feeling that we are part of the narrative of history.  

In fact, citizens across the world are making change happen, at an unprecedented scale and pace, using old and new technologies. The events of the North African Spring attest to how years of organising combined with the use of the Internet, mobile phones and TV led to the collapse of once invincible regimes. Elsewhere too, people are agitating for dignity and livelihood, from the Walk to Work protests in Uganda to the hunger fasts to stop corruption in India, from the rappers in Senegal satirising life presidents to the protestors outside my Wall Street hotel room, demanding jobs. 

Open communication is heightening aspirations, and enabling people to imagine new possibilities. No longer are people willing to wait endlessly for empty promises, remain silent in the face of daily humiliations, or indefinitely defer dreams. Ideas travel, we see how others live and make a difference, we wonder “If they can do it, why can’t we?” We learn lessons, we get inspired, we pick up tools, we organise, we act.  

For governments who wish to maintain an established order, these developments are worrying. But they also provide a real opportunity. 

For open government is the most apt response to the democratic impulse to be involved, to count, to matter. Excluding people breeds resentment and suspicion and anger, even where the motives may have been benign. In contrast, creating open societies, where citizens can choose their leaders and hold them accountable, creates a sense of belonging, and gives people a stake in public affairs. Openness makes it easier to engender trust, legitimacy and responsibility, and harder to foster cynicism.  

Take the Constitutions of South Africa and Kenya. Among the greatest such documents in the world, born out a context of violence and deep inequities, they were forged through struggle and painful, open and exhaustive public engagement. Today these Constitutions help uphold the best part of our values and aspirations, and serve as the most effective safeguard against our baser instincts.   

The course of human progress is never straightforward or free of pitfalls. But the human spirit is such — with our curiosity to know, our impulse to speak out, our tenacity to get things done, and our deep rooted desire for freedom and dignity — that in the end we will settle for nothing less than open government. 

Rakesh Rajani is head of Twaweza Tanzania; this article is an edited version of a presentation he made on behalf of civil society at the launch of the Open Government Partnership at the United Nations in New York on September 20, to an audience containing US President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Wilma Rousseff