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“Open Government”: Open to Whom?

Hannah Bowen's picture

The push for open government is not of course limited to Barack Obama’s White House  or to  the World Bank.

As part of the AudienceScapes project, InterMedia has been conducting quantitative and qualitative research in Africa, to better understand how people gather, share and shape news and public interest information. In Kenya, InterMedia conducted in-depth interviews with 15 senior members of the policy-making community.

We discovered  interest in the country’s open-government innovations (such as a government agency’s online discussion group), as well as representatives of civil society promising to hold government accountable by proactively seeking out policy information and providing input into the policy process.

But obstacles remain. For their part, government officials complained about the lack of recordkeeping and archiving, particularly of the digital variety. Even with the best of intentions, officials may not be able to make information available amid weak information management systems; some of the interviewees pointed out that information about existing programs goes missing, and with it lessons learned -- along with the public’s opportunity to hold agencies accountable.

The policymakers we spoke to had a number of suggestions for development partners to help bridge the gap between open government theory and practice. First, invest in information management systems—not only in central ministries, but all the way down to provincial and district offices. Second, help elevate the public’s understanding of the policy making process, making civic education programs accessible in many languages, in innovate ways, and using accessible media. Finally, concentrate on expanding access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), so that the potential audience for policy information is nationally representative, rather than limited to urban elites. Low access to ICTs, low levels of literacy and the multitude of languages spoken in Kenya all emerged as significant challenges to citizen participation.

This was confirmed by the quantitative research we conducted, simultaneous with the policymaker interviews: a national survey (2,000 respondents).  The internet, a staple of developed-country open government initiatives (e-governance) holds great promise with Kenyan urban elites (particularly youth), but remains ineffective as a means to reach rural populations, the illiterate, and those at the low end of the income scale - often, the very populations to whom government is least accountable. Nationally, eleven percent of survey respondents have internet access of some kind at home (the rate for rural residents is half that), and only 5 percent have a working computer at home. A growing number access the internet by mobile phone.

While we found policy actors are part of Kenya’s ‘internet elite’, using the web to conduct research, find and share best practices, and stay in touch, this sharing of public interest information has not trickled down to the average Kenyan. According to our national survey, only 14 percent of Kenyans cite government as a weekly source of news and information, far behind that coming from the major media and communication platforms and outlets, or through Word-of-Mouth. And of those who had used the Internet in the previous year, fully 40 percent said they had never visited a government website.

Radio continues to be the only mass medium with truly national reach - 87 percent of individuals surveyed nationally reported having a working radio at home. One development practitioner interviewed for the study experienced that firsthand: “We discovered that only a small number of people had known about our call for [grant] proposals, so we went to vernacular radio stations and now the [interest] became overwhelming....We have discovered that with [national stations such as] Nation TV, KTN, Citizen-those are not enough. Go to the small ones, the Inooro (Kikuyu language station), Ramogi (Luo station), and you will get everybody.”

Mobile phone use and access is growing exponentially (71% have a mobile at home; of users, 38% bought their first phone in the past two years), and already helping provide input to government, if not facilitating flows of information from the government to citizens. An example, one government official recalled that “When there was a cholera outbreak in Turkana, even before getting information from my officer, the public there had already called me and told me that they were really dying and the government was doing nothing.”

Clearly, until the Internet and smartphones make greater inroads, wide civic participation in open government will be a challenge. Journalists working for less participatory and interactive platforms like radio and TV will likely need to serve as the broader public’s surrogate interface with open government, and continue to try and hold institutions accountable.  

Lastly there is the issue of trust. In our national survey, less than half the respondents expressed trust in the civil society branches of government. These institutions (parliament, national government, courts and judges) lagged far behind the faith average Kenyans place in the media, international development organizations, and major companies. Local governments are trusted somewhat more than the national.

 

Photo Credit: Flickr user criggchef

Comments

Submitted by Tina George on
Hannah, Excellent post! Investing in ICTs is fundamental to open and transparent governance. I am particularly struck by the following lines, "For their part, government officials complained about the lack of recordkeeping and archiving, particularly of the digital variety. Even with the best of intentions, officials may not be able to make information available amid weak information management systems; some of the interviewees pointed out that information about existing programs goes missing, and with it lessons learned -- along with the public’s opportunity to hold agencies accountable." I work on internal reforms using ICTs for the Bank with HRS, and a project that we delivered recently (March 2010) focused specifically on state of the art digital records management and archiving for staff HR documents and records. The Bank as you can well imagine, swims in paper -- appointment letters, assignment memos, forms for insurance, benefits, visas, life events, so on and so forth. Such documents are confidential historical records that need to be digitally captured, stored, and archived to enable effective and efficient management of information, and to enable transparency and governance. The solution is simple and yet technically elegant -- Important paper documents can be controlled and tracked through barcodes (just as UPS controls and tracks their packages) and then paper can be captured and indexed through a variety of methods -- central scanning, faxing, emailing scanned documents, physical drop off, pouching. Paper can then be boxed and archived to the mines for retention (and disposition, almost never). Finally authorized individuals can then retrieve and view the digital records. As you say, it is important to "help bridge the gap between open government theory and practice. First, invest in information management systems—not only in central ministries, but all the way down to provincial and district offices." The key is just that -- bridging the gap between open government theory and practice would mean investing in ICTs with well designed business processes, and more importantly political will, funding and support for the innovative use of ICTs for governance. best, -tina

Submitted by jieun on
Interesting topic. The AfDB also started to think about how to take advantages of technology & innovation to improve governance in Africa. Would love to learn more success cases in the world.

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