Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012
Originally published on July 19, 2012
Even as the language of ‘Open Government’ has picked up steam over the past couple of years – driven initially by the 'Obama Open Government Directive' , and further boosted by the multi-lateral Open Government Partnership  – the use of the term has tended to fairly broad, and mostly imprecise, lacking a shared, consistent definition. As Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity, a key player in the OGP, cautioned in a recent blog : “The longer we allow ‘open government’ to mean any and everything to anyone, the risk increases that the term melts into a hollow nothingness of rhetoric.”
In a recent useful piece , Harlan Yu and David Robinson, draw a distinction between “the technologies of open data and the politics of open government,” suggesting that ‘open government data’ can be understood through two lenses – open ‘government data’ or ‘open government’ data. The first approach reflects an emphasis on deploying the functionality of new information technologies to put government datasets in the public space in a way that is amenable to re-use, and can be tied to a range of outcomes – among other things, improved delivery of services, innovation, or efficiency. The second approach prioritizes a mode of governance characterized by transparent decision-making - particularly on issues of public interest and critical for public welfare – and the release of government data (and information in other formats as well) as furthering this goals of transparency.
The vision of the Obama Directive was broader than just a focus on transparency and extended to ‘transparency, participation, and collaboration’. Beth Noveck, former Head of the White House Open Government Initiative  underscored this point when she emphasized  that open government was “…never exclusively about making transparent information about the workings of government,” but rather an innovative strategy focusing on “using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data…” The goal of last week’s conference  on Open Government Data – organized by the Bank in partnership with the U.S. Government, was to leverage “the historic opportunity presented by open government data to foster collaboration, transparency, and interactive public participation.”
Attempting to provide a concrete and potentially shared definition of open government, Heller, highlights three dimensions - information transparency, public engagement, and accountability. And both Heller and Yu and Robinson recognize that while current technology trends have reincarnated the idea of open government, and that technology can be a powerful enabler, the idea itself, and the principles it embodies, is technology-neutral.
To those working on governance issues at the Bank, these concepts will, of course, resonate immediately. The triad of ‘transparency, accountability, and participation’ has been central to the Bank’s work on ‘Demand for Good Governance’ and a key dimension of building states that were ‘capable and accountable” as outlined in the 2007 Governance and Anti-corruption (GAC) Strategy  and the 2012 Update  to the Strategy. Following the framework provided by these key strategic documents, and more recently precipitated by the events of the Arab Spring, the Bank has expanded its work on supporting transparency, and fostering participation by a range of stakeholders – both as means of boosting more accountable governance.
The discussion on what open government means, what the driving principles behind it, and how it is distinct from related concepts, is not merely of academic or theoretical interest. As ambitious data and information disclosure initiatives are launched with aspirations of creating transparency, participation, collaboration, and accountability, understanding the meaning, objectives, and rationale for these policies is critical to assessing if investments are made in the right set of tools to achieve the intended set of outcomes.
Making information publicly available through openness initiatives is the beginning, not the end of a results chain that links openness to better governance and development outcomes, and requires looking at a number of issues. First, whether openness leads to accountable governance depends on the kind of information that is released. As Yu and Robinson point out, a government can provide “open data” on politically neutral topics, but still remain deeply opaque and unaccountable. Transparency initiatives could release a goldmine of information in various formats, and of tremendous interest to academics, businesses, and other communities, but if this is not information that enables scrutiny of the decision-making, budget allocation, expenditures, performance, contracting, or other such functions of government – it will have little bearing on improving accountability.
Yet, the information that extracts accountability for expenditures and performance, that enables corruption to be exposed, is precisely the information that is particularly prone to being kept hidden, or released in un-usable and incomplete formats. So, second, the kind of transparency regime matters. Transparency systems that are mandatory and demand-driven - such as those relying on Right to Information laws – rather than voluntary and supply-driven, might be stronger because they create a legal obligation to both proactively, and on request, release the information necessary to monitor public finances and performance.
Third, the larger governance ecosystem matters. Transparency policies will achieve little if the political system does not create the incentives for officials to be sanctioned when corruption is exposed, for service providers to be penalized when poor performance or absenteeism is revealed, or for safeguards or structural reforms to be adopted when evidence of systemic governance problems emerge. While more recently, much attention has been placed on the capacity of citizens to use information, and on the role of media and civil society groups as intermediaries to make information more accessible, the extent to which the political space exists for them to exert influence and effect change will determine the efficacy of their role.