On my way home from work last Friday, I chanced upon a fascinating interview on C-SPAN radio on government transparency, access to public information, and citizen participation at the U.S. Federal level. New York Law School Professor Beth Noveck, currently serving as White House deputy chief technology officer, was talking about the open government initiative. One of its key components is a site (whitehouse.gov/open) dedicated to Web 2.0-based transparency, participation, and collaboration efforts of the U.S. Federal Government. The site links to online resources where citizens can access public information (transparency) and provide input into the policymaking process (participation). The goal is not just consulting citizens on public matters, said Noveck, but a structured process through which they can help generate actual policy options. Other links bring users to sites that seek specialist input on military science, education, small businesses, and technology applications in international development (collaboration).
These are obviously steps in the right direction. The global access to information community surely welcomes and celebrates these developments. But the largely web-based White House open government initiative seems promising in the United States due in no small part to the country's relatively high Internet penetration level. As we know, this is not the case in many countries in the Global South. Perhaps speaking to the developing country context, the Carter Center’s “Plan of Action to Advance the Right of Access to Information in the Americas”, released last week, counsels caution:
Although technology can assist access to information, it is not a panacea. States' use of websites and new technologies is but one avenue for dissemination rather than a substitute for meaningful access to information whereby all persons have the right to seek and receive information regardless of the medium.
Nonetheless, the political capital and public resources being expended to build the U.S. government’s capacity to engage in two-way communication with citizens via Web 2.0 is both exciting and commendable. And people are taking notice. An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times discusses data.gov, a component of the open government initiative which gives citizens access to raw data and a platform for suggesting solutions to public problems.
Although the Times editorial is supportive of the effort, it also raises a concern that resonates with a very common experience from around the world: “The bureaucratic psyche may be an… obstacle. For far too many officials, the default setting is always to deny the public’s right to know.” President Obama, continues the Times editorial, “… will have to remind his administration early and often that he is committed to transparency – and that the threat of embarrassment is no justification for secrecy.”
In addition, there are, in fact, strong incentives for governments to effectively communicate with their citizens. As CommGAP and colleagues at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs have previously argued*,
Governments have an interest in instituting regimes of transparency and accountability. Providing citizens with adequate information on priorities, programs, and activities ensures the legitimacy of the government and therefore stabilizes the political situation in a country. In contrast, when governments face a crisis of legitimacy, they are vulnerable to disruptive forces and may not be able to effectively carry out their mandates. It is therefore in the interest of governments to communicate effectively about the work they do on behalf of their constituents.
The legitimacy argument is not new. Gottlob Benedikt von Schirach**, a prominent journalist in the 18th century, wrote in 1785 that "Everywhere, there has been an increase in publicity about politics, a consequence of the enlightenment of our age... and governments enjoy increasing trust as they become more open." Trust, but verify. “The public will also have to do its part, watching closely and responding creatively”, insists the Times editorial.
Photo credit: Flickr user Ben Zvan
* workshop jointly organized by CommGAP and GW's SMPA entitled "The Contribution of Government Communication Capacity to Achieving Good Governance Outcomes" held at The George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, February 19, 2009.
** intro remarks to Johann Hermann Stoever, Historisch-statistische Beschreibung der Staaten des teutschen Reichs (Hamburg, 1785, p. xi,)