Let’s not miss the Open Government train
By: Fabián E. Soria and Pablo A. Rivero**
Public administration is evolving towards Open Government, a new paradigm that makes use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) but also changes the processes and information management within the public sector in order to bring the government closer to the citizens and become more efficient.
There are two important factors in this topic: first, what does it exactly mean (and why is it important) to “open the data and processes in the public sector”. Second, who is this information for (i.e. who will make use of open data)?
What does Open Government mean?
It’s important to differentiate between open government, open data and electronic government (e-government). E-Government refers to the use of ICTS in the public sector (which may or may not rely on the internet, such as via mobile SMS text messages), which generally includes aspects such as accessing services online, online payments, and the ability to make requests or participate via ICTs. Besides the ease of access that these tools provide to citizens, there is an increase in efficiency within the public sector, which can use integrated systems and new technologies to complete their tasks.
On the other hand, there is Open Data, which implies that a government has taken steps to open the current information about their activities and making it public in free, electronic, accessible and usable format. For example, data such as budget execution, national census data, government surveys, salaries of public sector officials, government expenditure, investment, loans and any other information that does not compromise national security. In many countries, open data has allowed citizens and private sector enterprises to even access real time data, which has enabled them to have a better interaction with the government as well as to contribute to better public policies, improve efficiency and hold the government accountable through constant public scrutiny and analysis of available information. One of the most interesting uses of open data is through the smartphone app boom, which allows citizen to find out information ranging from when the next bus will arrive to information about their local or national budgets.
Recently, ONE Foundation has published a collection of experiences in Africa where citizens made use of Open Data to improve transparency and fight corruption, by shedding light to irregularities in the data. You can read more about this here.
Open Data can also help with civic participation and engagement by providing basic essential information, such as who represents citizens at the local and national government bodies, and how to reach out to them. Once again, smartphone apps make use of GPS information to determine where the person is, and can then display the list of corresponding government representatives and even information about legislation that can affect that particular location. Sunlight Foundation recently released an app that can provide such information for the United States, called “Congress”.
Last but not least is the concept of Open Government. This concept goes beyond opening data; it has a larger scope and aims at creating incentives for citizens, through tech innovation, to participate, hold government accountable and improve transparency by changing the way the public sector is managed. It is a new political paradigm. This openness means that there is a proactive attitude to publish and disseminate information about the Government, and the Government welcomes and actively looks for participation and engagement with civil society. The transition from a traditional government to an open government requires a mind switch as well as a change in political relations, where processes are not only designed to serve the public sector as an end, but also considers citizens as key actors and receivers of services provided by the State. Processes are then redesigned with the citizens in mind, to achieve an open government that is citizen-centered. To learn more about this there are several useful resources at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) website.
E-Government does not necessarily aim at changing the relation between state and citizens – although it has the potential to do so eventually. Although the implementation of eGov tools do not guarantee a more profound democratic citizen participation per se, the biggest risk is that eGov can serve itself and lose a true sense of paradigm change: public sector management oriented towards the wants and needs of the citizens.
A central aspect of open government and open data is the need for someone to “listen” on the other side. A good analogy is a water faucet, where water flow represents the flow of information. The concept of a black-box government is what has existed until recently, a government with unknown processes and inner workings for the civil society, who could only watch what was being done or not from the outside, and with a limited capacity for grievances or protest. Basically it was a system where the faucet was closed where civil society organizations and citizens received little to no “water” (information).
Open data means opening up the faucet to create a flow instead of information and transparency instead of a dripple. It’s true that the government will always have control over how widely it opens the faucet to allow information flow. But on the other side, it’s the civil society that has to make sure that the water is being used for something, instead of flowing down the drain. If there is no container under the faucet, then the water flow has no purpose. And the size of the container has to correspond to the existing flow. Abundant flow requires a larger container to take advantage of all the water.
In Bolivia there are a few initiatives trying to promote the use and investigation of the (little) information that is currently available, initiatives such as DataBo of La Pública and Datos Bolivia. This means that there is a growing number of citizens and civil society organizations that have an interest and are demanding open data, and who have the initiative and interest of making use of such data to inform and suggest policy advice, feedback and necessary changes, and to actively engage as citizens.
What’s happening in Bolivia?
The final draft of the e-Government Implementation Plan has been recently presented by the Information and Communication Technologies Plurinational Committee (Comité Plurinacional de Tecnologías de la Información y Comunicación , COPLUTIC), integrated by the Development Planning Ministry, the Agency for the Development of the Information Society in Bolivia (ADSIB), the Ministry of Public Works and Dwelling, the Transport and Telecommunication Authority (ATT)*, among other public sector institutions. This plan is the outcome of several months of work, which has been followed by civil society, and, at some point, has also received input and comments from citizens. There is no doubt that it is progress in the right direction to modernize the public sector in Bolivia, and to make public sector processes more efficient through technology.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a missed opportunity in the plan, because it does not set concrete or sufficiently clear bases to open data or processes. Although the plan talks about bringing the government closer to the citizens, this proximity is reduced to providing online services and online payments. But the plan does not talk about the possibility of creating mechanisms of social accountability and community oversight, or channels for citizen participation that can effectively affect in a tangible manner the implementation of projects and public works.
Another missing piece to evolve towards an open government is to have matching legislation that enables access to information (a freedom of information law). Such legislation — a law about transparency and access to public information — does not currently exist in Bolivia, and it is important to have this in place as a vital complement for the e-Government strategy.
The efforts to implement e-Government in Bolivia are valuable, however the current draft of the e-Government Implementation Plan is a plan that implements new technologies to keep doing what it has always done. A change towards an open and participatory government requires the government to stop doing things the way they have always been done, and flip the switch to start doing things differently. The opportunity to strengthen democratic citizen participation lies in the creation of new forms and channels for citizen participation, which will be a complement to the traditional and existing mechanisms of participation via social movements or neighborhood associations, to open processes and make information more transparent.
*Ministerio de Planificación del Desarrollo, Agencia para el Desarrollo de la Sociedad de la Información en Bolivia (ADSIB), Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Vivienda, Autoridad de Transportes y Telecomunicaciones
**Fabian E. Soria (@lorosoria) is a social development consultant and associated researcher at INESAD, and is based in Washington D.C.
Pablo A. Rivero (@payorivero) is a political communication researcher and is based in La Paz, Bolivia.
Cover photo credit: Tim Pierce