Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011
Originally published on July 20, 2011
Last week, more than 59 governments and 100 civil society groups joined the Government of Brazil and the United States to announce the Open Government Partnership  (OGP) in Washington, DC. The initiative brings together nation states, civil society, and the private sector to address problems that Governments are unable to solve alone. Rather than seeing citizens and civil society groups as competitors, governments from the North and South asserted that private actors, commercial and non-profit, are essential partners in solving complex social problems. And this requires a new social contract, a shift from eGov to WeGov.
The OGP start with open data but goes beyond transparency and accountability. As the UK’s Director of Transparency, Tim Kelsey, stated, “open data is a necessary precondition for open government” but something broader and deeper than freedom of information is needed. Open Government and ultimately open development  is about putting citizens at the center of the development paradigm and creating a new model for engagement. Sometimes a pothole can be a gateway to civic engagement.
Tools like Huduma  in Kenya or SeeClickFix  in the US enable citizens to use their phones and web browers to log and prioritize public service problems in their own communities. In the US, it’s the proverbial pothole that’s their most common pain-point. City governments from New York to Bangalore and Nairobi are paying attention and using citizen reporting tools to prioritize public service actions and enlisting neighborhood groups to solve problems. As Tim O’Reilly famously said, the days of ‘vending machine government’ where citizens pay their taxes and governments solve their problems are gone. We need a new paradigm. Government is a platform and open government is about enlisting large numbers of people to address public service challenges.
To realize this vision, however, Governments must do something that makes many people uncomfortable. Relinquish control and allow communities and non-experts to help manage and moderate development processes. That means shifting the contract between state and citizen.
Latvia gives us one such example in manabalss.lv . The portal allows citizens to propose new legislation to Parliament. If a citizen or group can gather 10,000 signatures from their fellow Latvians, they get an audience with the Latvian Parliament. Policy makers have realized their own people can be partners in governance. In the UK, a government mandate to liberate hospital performance data including doctor performance, resulted in a 20% reduction in mortality in select hospitals.
In Mexico, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) described a program working with citizens and local governments to monitor budgets, contracts, and the use of ‘information power to hold the powerful to account’. But challenges abound and political will is crucial in making hard decisions to invigorate participation. While energy from the Arab Spring abounds, many struggle to make sense of what happened and what it means for governments. We know that ignoring citizen voices and squashing meaningful engagement is potentially disastrous but we don’t know what works when civil society is weak, citizens are frustrated, and governments are unable to meet the needs of a growing and restive population.
And what is the role of multilaterals and the World Bank Group in all this? That question was asked explicitly to Kenyan officials who recently launched an Open Kenya initiative , freeing for the first time public expenditure data, census data, and household surveys. The answer was clear. Help end knowledge monopolies. Link our experts with expertise elsewhere. Encourage citizen feedback loops. Use technology to enable citizen engagement of a different kind. As we move towards a world of hyper-connected citizens, government has no choice but to embrace transparency and leverage citizens as partners in governance.
These were the words of Dr. Bitange Ndemo, a Permanent Secretary in the Kenyan Government. You can’t change what you can’t see and that’s why open data is a necessary precondition for open government. But it’s about more than freeing information. The experience of MKSS in India starts with “the right to know – the right to live” but goes beyond access to information. Social audits are effective precisely because government officials, civil society activists, and the media work together to listen to citizens, end impunity, and mobilize social action. Data is fuel but people are drivers. Both are necessary for social change.
Global mechanisms like the OGP encourage multi-stakeholder engagement. International actors like the World Bank can catalogue these partnerships, connect practitioners to each other, and aggregate demand from government and civil society partners. It’s about brokering knowledge, learning, and innovation between governments and other stakeholders. Finance becomes instrumental to lubricate the path of knowledge exchange. While this is not a traditional role for development Banks, helping governments partner with citizens to solve pressing social and economic problems may be the most important role they can play going forward.
Related blog post by Aleem: Let's Move Beyond Open Data to Open Development 
Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks at the Open Government Partnership High-Level Meeting, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 12, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain ]