Toward An Accountable Open Government Culture

December 12, 2013  • Panthea Lee, Guest Blogger

Despite the great many initiatives taking root worldwide, the open government movement has yet to achieve its potential. Open data has been used toward civic ends for nearly a decade, yet its current focus appears disproportionately targeted towards improving the quotidian details of our lived experience. I’ll be the first to applaud the streamlining of public services, but a more efficient e-government is not the same as a more accountable open government.

In other words, enough with the gateway drugs. Let’s get to the hard stuff.

Let’s employ open government initiatives instead of scrutinizing special interests that undermine democracy. Let’s bring open government to bear on how campaign finance and electoral systems are considered by government. Let’s close the gap between what could be done in open government, and what is being done.

The Issue: Limited Understanding, Limited Investment

To realize open government’s full potential, scale of adoption is required from both governments and citizens. To achieve scale of adoption, both sides require greater understanding of the full potential of open government.

It’s a classic chicken-and-egg challenge.

FOCAS 2013 participants agreed that establishing larger awareness of open government’s benefits among both government and citizens is a critical next step.

“Government officials need more success stories,” said Kathy Conrad of the US General Services Administration. “Before they invest, they want more proof beyond the same examples they hear all the time.”

Still, given the relative youth of open government, many initiatives struggle to demonstrate the kind of cost-benefit that public agencies or international donors seek. According to Tiago Peixoto of the World Bank, “[Public sector] funders may think a certain open government initiative shows promise, but they need to first understand the return on investment.”

Here, civic entrepreneurs have a role to play. “There are many conversations in government about what’s possible [in open government], and prototypes can help crystallize those opportunities,” said Nick Sinai of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “That’s where outside partners can add value.”

Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation agreed. She stressed the value of civic entrepreneurs who, compared to government, are more nimble, and have greater freedom to experiment — critical factors in creative problem solving.

“In the early days [of open government], we didn’t fully recognize the importance of entrepreneurs to advancing open government. Today, it’s clear. The depth of [civic entrepreneurship] will be the source of innovation.”

But mission-driven entrepreneurs often have a tough time attracting funding, given private investors’ limited understanding of the open government space.

“Venture capitalists and others that fund small companies need to be educated about the potential of open data,” said Caitria O’Neill of “They want proprietary data, and the concept of open data is anathema to them.”

For open government to move forward, perceptions need to change.

The Solution: Driving a Culture of Open Government

The work of the Open Data Institute (ODI) may prove instructive. ODI is a UK-based nonprofit that seeks to engage diverse communities in catalyzing open data culture. 

“Part of our work is changing perceptions of what open data is and what it can do,” said ODI’s Gavin Starks (pictured right) at FOCAS. “We want to show how data can help solve problems — it doesn’t matter the sector. We need global momentum from global stories that drive awareness about open data and push for standards.”

ODI’s initiatives are diverse in focus and take many forms. It established a physical hub to give London’s open data community a gathering place. It curates resources to share knowledge about what works — and what doesn’t — when publishing and consuming open data. It commissions open data-driven artwork. And it seeks to encourage shared standards and professionalize practitioners through certification.

To demonstrate open data’s value to a wider audience, ODI’s Open Corporates illustrated the complexity — and potentially dubious practices — of well-known multinational companies. It showed, for example, that Goldman Sachs consists of over 4,000 corporate entities globally, some of which are 10 layers removed from its US headquarters. Of those entities, approximately one-third are registered in tax havens. The campaign generated popular interest, including media coverage from Wired, the London Evening Standard, and BoingBoing. As ODI’s Sir Nigel Shadbolt explained, to capture popular interest, we first need relatable narratives.

“From early on, we believed that demonstrating economic value was going to be important for the open data movement,” said Shadbolt at FOCAS. “This, in turn, would help drive social and environmental value. For open data to gain traction in the mainstream, we needed compelling stories to increase depth of impact, and capture people’s imaginations to envision change.”

So far, ODI’s model seems to be working: 25 countries are seeking to establish their own national chapter, as part of ODI’s vision of a Global Open Network.

Ideas in Practice: ODI USA

FOCAS participants saw the benefits of a US chapter of ODI to promote open data culture among key audiences, support professionalization of the field, and encourage dialogue and coordination between diverse actors.

Much like how Red Hat became the ‘missing’ salespeople for open source software, ODI USA would help prime and educate the market. Activities to help advance open government may include working closely with government officials to understand their current challenges, then design and implement initiatives that help address them using open government principles or tools. Or helping journalists understand the potential of open data for public benefit, and sharing these stories with their readers. Or educating funders about what open data is and what it can do to enable informed, strategic investments.

At FOCAS, several participants, led by open government technologist Waldo Jaquith, signed on to lead the development of ODI USA. Since the FOCAS meeting, and with funding from the Knight Foundation, they have already launched the organization and begun mapping their plans, answering questions such as: What can be adapted from the UK model, and what needs to be different? Where would the US chapter’s efforts be most effectively allocated? What impact can it have on open government in America?

Towards our Own Accountability

As the open government community works to educate diverse audiences on the potential of inclusive, transparent government, we must also ensure that not only are we preaching accountability, but we are practicing it, too. Since its inception, many have questioned the viability and utility of open government. For all the tools, commitments, and initiatives, how do we ensure they actually achieve their intended impact?

In 2001, political scientist Archon Fung and sociologist Erik Olin Wright questioned the sustainability of participatory governance models. Empowered, deliberative governance is an innovative approach, they believed, but is yet historically unproven. And based on their survey of initiatives at the time, they warned of unintended consequences:

[O]ne might expect that practical demands on [public] institutions might press participants eventually to abandon time-consuming deliberative decision-making in favor of oligarchic or technocratic forms. […] After participants have plucked the ‘low-hanging fruit,’ these forms might again ossify into the very bureaucracies that they sought to replace. Or, ordinary citizens may find the reality of participation increasingly burdensome and less rewarding than they had imagined, and engagement may consequently dim from exhaustion and disillusionment.

In 2007, civic technologist Guglielmo Celata, in reflecting on his Italian e-democracy site Openpolis, noted, “Administrators are interested in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and of course, they try to change the nature of the project, from a participative one into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.”

From 2007 to 2013, a study from Spain showed that in many participatory governance initiatives, municipal governments simply cherry-pick citizen proposals that reinforce the existing positions of political parties, special interest groups, or vetted experts. Other studies have reached similar conclusions: Initiatives are often designed to prevent citizens from freely providing input, only allowing them to choose from proposals already deemed agreeable.

And, in 2013, early reflections on Liberia’s Open Budget Initiative — one of its Open Government Partnership commitments — were not particularly encouraging. Under the Initiative, the Ministry of Finance had set up an electronic billboard outside its office in Monrovia as a bold symbol of openness. Yet several key aspects of the country’s budgets, including government compensation, remain in closed cabinets.

Of course, in discussing open government, we must steer clear of employing false binaries: for instance, a government is open or closed, or a program is a success or a failure. But we should remember that the way an initiative is designed can help or hinder citizens’ ability to provide input on the processes of governance, a state’s ability to meaningfully respond, and our collective ability to ensure the initiative’s accountability. If we are to realize the potential of open government, we must be sensitive to these realities.

So as we continue to secure commitments, build tools, and launch programs, let us make sure we hold ourselves accountable for their impact on human livelihoods.

Yes, the open government community is still experimenting. But we must be thoughtful and intentional in our experimentation. We should first clearly define our goals and assess our progress towards them so that, as a movement, we can understand how to build upon our successes, and learn from our failures. We should be honest in recognizing our biases to enable our own accountability to those we seek to serve. We should be sensitive to the needs of citizens and governments alike, and design solutions that meet the needs of both, and avoid placing unreasonable demands on either. And, as noted in this post, we need more widespread understanding of the benefits of open government before we can realize its potential.

The conversations at FOCAS 2013 were positive steps in this direction. Here’s to citizens and civil society, entrepreneurs and technologists, venture capitalists and international donors, and governments the world over, collaborating to advance equitable, accountable governance.

Posted by Panthea Lee, a principal at Reboot, a social enterprise working to improve governance and development worldwide.

This is the final post in a six-part series on open government.  By sharing the conversations at the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) and the ideas they inspired, we hope to advance a constructive dialogue around open government and a future of more equitable and accountable governance.