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5 Things You Need to Know about Open Government

Ravi Kumar's picture

The Internet is abuzz with articles and commentary on how to make government more open. Open government benefits us all. The end result makes governments efficient and responsive, ultimately improving citizens’ lives. Here are some simple answers to questions on open government. Of course, a list like this always needs a disclaimer: This article doesn’t provide you a comprehensive understanding of the open government movement. But it’s a start.

1. What exactly is open in an open government? Open governments are open in the same way that doors are open: Open governments release information about budgeting, contracting, spending, and aid to be freely open and available to the public, in a form that average citizens can understand. In Paraguay, journalists are trained to analyze the national government’s budget information (which it publishes on an online database) to better inform the public on the topic. This makes it easier for citizens to be informed about how the government allocates and makes decisions about public money and resources. Equally important, however, is that an open government is one that actively invites citizens to participate in government decision-making. In the DRC, citizens use their mobile phones to decide where a certain percentage of the local government’s investment budget should go, be it for a bridge, a school, or any other priority. This two-way relationship that is based on information and collaboration is the foundation of open government.
2. Why should I care about open government? The water that you drink, the public school your children go to, the roads that you use every day: Governments use public money to make these a reality. In the process, money was exchanged, contracts were signed. It’s estimated that $9.5 trillion are spent by governments all over the world on contracts alone – therefore, you have a role to play in making sure your share in that money is not exchanged in shady contracts, resulting in substandard and faulty infrastructure. If you live in a developing country, you have the right to monitor that international aid goes to where it is actually targeted and most needed. Regardless of where you are, whether you are rich or poor, you are affected when your government is open or not open.

3. So it’s basically anti-corruption? Yes and no. When governments are open, it’s easier for citizens to play a watchdog role to fight and prevent corruption and inefficiency. But open government goes further: It makes sure that governments and citizens work together to achieve better outcomes for all. You can declare a government to be not corrupt and it still could be “closed” and inefficient, spending money on projects that citizens don’t need. One of the core values of open government is that no one group of people has the solutions to the most pressing governance challenges, and that’s why openness and collaboration are essential. If citizens and governments work together, we can all co-create practical solutions to long-standing problems.

4. What’s the evidence that citizens actually want this? In October 2013, a global survey was conducted that asked citizens, among others, about how open they perceive their government to be. 61% of respondents said they want their government to be more open. Among respondents aged 18-25, the numbers are even more significant: 80% in Mongolia, 82% in Indonesia, 83% in Mexico, show the greater demand from the younger generation who will inherit the successes and failures of their governments. In a separate survey by the UN and its partners, “an honest and responsive government” is among the top 3 priorities (out of 16 topics) of citizens surveyed around the world.
5. How can I get involved? You’ve got a host of options! If you’re from a country that has signed up to the Open Government Partnership to learn about your government’s commitments and action plans, and how they are implementing it. If you’re interested about contracts, your country may have a database for its contracts, too (check here) and join the movement to stop secret contracts. Check out the World Bank’s Open Data portal as well. Here are some ideas for how these data are being used. Join the growing discussion by tweeting #OpenGovNow, take part in our our series of conversations around the role of young people in open government, and don’t forget the basic online tools that are at your disposal and you can use to petition your government, mobilize groups, and play a watchdog role.
In the end, governance is everyone’s business, and open government is new way of ensuring that our governments’ decisions today lead to a better future for all.