As you can see from many of our blog posts, we're somewhat struggling with getting a good grip on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their role for governance and accountability. We're also somewhat split along the lines of enthusiasm and scepticism with regard to the possibilities of using ICTs to straighten out a distorted public sphere and further development. This morning I learned about eProcurement, a very particular application of ICT in the context of government accountability, that seems to me a good argument in favor of us technology enthusiasts.
My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.
--Barack Obama, January 2009
From the perspective of good governance, the Obama administration’s efforts at transparency and participation—to make government open to public scrutiny through (easy) access to government information and to engage the public in designing and improving government initiatives—are simply impressive. The President’s first executive action after taking office was the signing of the Memorandum of Transparency and Open Government. This memorandum signaled his commitment to open government based on three core values, clearly spelled out in the Memorandum and on the administration’s website:
The recent release of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) used to be as eagerly awaited by political leaders as chefs wait for the Michelin Guide’s ratings. Leaders of countries that move up the list or have improved their ratings were quick to announce the findings, taking all the credit for improvements. Leaders of countries whose ratings have fallen in the index did not seem as motivated to go public accepting responsibility or promising to improve.
The majority of the 180 countries included in the 2009 index score below five on a scale from 0 to 10. No country scored 0, perhaps signaling optimism even in the worst circumstances. Given the lack of progress among the most corrupt countries is anyone trying new ways to reduce corruption?
Is transparency delayed, transparency denied? How about when disasters, such typhoons or earthquakes, strike? Should transparency and citizen access to information as regards the disbursement of calamity funds be considered a priority? Or should transparency temporarily take a back seat during disasters with all efforts going into emergency response?
Yesterday, CommGAP and UNODC co-hosted a side event during the Third Conference of the State Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption, taking place this week in Doha, Qatar. Entitled, “Media Relations and Good Practices in Awareness-Raising Campaigns,” the event consisted of two sessions, focusing on the importance of media relations for an anti-corruption agency to get its message across to the public and generate public support, and of awareness raising campaigns to engage the public in the fight against corruption.
I recently spoke at the World e-Parliament 2009 Conference held in Washington at the US House of Representatives. The conference attracted representatives from all Parliaments and was attended by more than 300 Members of Parliament, Clerks or Secretary -Generals of Parliaments, their deputies and other people working on e-Parliaments. With a global centre in Rome partially funded by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, the group tries to coordinate and develop ICT systems for Parliaments. They strongly believe that ICT can be a tool for greater transparency and accountability of Parliaments and a larger platform for public consultation and interaction with citizens. They are looking at ways to harness new technologies for this purpose.
Governments and development agencies have devoted many years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing democratic governance in countries around the world. The idea of creating democracies is still the primary driver of many governance improvement agendas. Clearly, democratic systems often bring with them improvements in governance and economic development, but simply putting a democracy into place is not enough.
Last week, this blog featured a quote by Elinor Ostrom, which contains an interesting sentence: “Yet I worry that the need for continuous civic engagement, intellectual struggle, and vigilance is not well understood in some of our mature democracies and is not transmitted to citizens and officials in new democracies….We have to avoid slipping into a naïve sense that democracy – once established – will continue on its own momentum."
According to The Financial Times, the U.S. government’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board plans to launch in October what the FT calls “the most complex government website in history." The Recovery Board, an independent body headed by Chairman Earl Devaney, is tasked to oversee the outflow of the US $787 billion stimulus package to jumpstart the ailing economy, and the state-of the-art website is intended to engage citizens in tracking the use of taxpayer money.
What caught my attention is the premise behind this initiative—that citizens know best what is happening in their own communities. In an effort to rein in waste, fraud, and abuse of stimulus funds, the Recovery Board is putting into practice the principles of accountability and transparency through partnership with citizens. The Board understands that to carry out its mandate successfully, it needs to equip citizens with information so that they can help the Board do its job. As Mr. Devaney explains, “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors-general].”
Last month, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke in an engaging panel discussion on the role of art and architecture in civic spheres at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He talked about the design of Boston’s federal courthouse: an effort that strove to create a building that was accessible and inviting to the people, so that they would recognize it as a public space—their space—and use it.
The on-going controversy around the presidential election result in Iran raises an important curiosity. It is clear at the present moment that the official results have defied expectations and dashed hopes for many. From the standpoint of political accountability, there are at least two important questions that arise. First, where do these expectations and hopes come from? Perceptions that the election was "stolen" must be based in some sense of a range of plausible outcomes, and the declared 63% to 34% split clearly fell out of this range for Moussavi supporters and comfortably within this range for Ahmadinejad supporters. The problem of conflicting pre-election expectations is an old one, rooted in what social scientists often call "homophily." Where we stand is often determined by where we sit, and we tend to sit in deeply embedded and entrenched social information networks amongst others who are very much like us in body, mind, and spirit. Those in the Ahmadinejad camp most likely set their expectations in the company of other Ahmadinejad supporters and those in the Moussavi camp most likely set their expectations in the company of fellows who championed Moussavi's cause.