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Open Data, Open Policy: Stepping Out of the Echo Chamber

Milica Begovic's picture

Recently, I participated in several events that look at the space between empowered government (gov2.0) and empowered citizens (citizen2.0 both individuals and civic groups and NGOs).

One discussion was around tapping into networks of empowered citizens clustering around different issues for open policy making (Masters of Networks, Venice) and another on getting human-readable stories from data (Open Data on the Web, London).

Then, there was a question on how open data and modern technologies can improve environmental sector governance (#ICT4ENV, Cetinje), or strengthen political transparency and accountability (Point 2.0, Sarajevo).

Different countries, different venues, different leading institutions – but a common set of issues that I struggle with and that, I hope, will emerge as topics in some future events (one of those, shaping up to be the policy making 2.0. deluge in Dublin, is coming up this month).

1. Old foes, new allies?

Tim Hughes argues that open government is the first reform narrative where citizens aren’t simply beneficiaries of the government transformation processes, but an integral part of bringing that reform about.

Times of channeling citizen values through two or three year votes are long gone – today, I could make my values known to my elected representative as frequently as I choose.

So what is political maturity and a skill set for institutions to account for, and engage with, citizens at an unprecedented scale, it is restraint and a new type of civic responsibility for citizens to exercise this new found power responsibly.

Despite many early wins, this remains an uncharted territory for both, so what fills the space between empowered government and empowered citizens?

Are we indeed seeing efforts to ‘combine the hierarchy of institutions with diversity of networks (read: citizens) to build innovations on top of our institutions to engage in governance’? (from Beth Noveck’s TED talk)

I am not sure. I’m still a part of many conversations where a movement made to convene (open data/open policy) is often reduced to accusatory back and forth where open data is but new ammunition to the old rivals and real issues get pushed to the margins.

2. Digitizing bureaucracy?

Partly related to the first point, tech solutions to policy issues by and for empowered citizens without institutions’ voice is only trouble.

What is the percentage of hackathon-born tech solutions that do get institutionalized? And if it is low (this is my guess), maybe it’s because policy makers aren’t around many of these events?

There is no question about civic hacking contribution to democracy, innovation, empowerment, development, and engagement (and in case you do question it, read 10 ways civic hacking is good for cities). But these solutions need their institutional home – they need someone to roll it out, engage with users, iterate and improve.

If these guys (representing institutions of the system) aren’t around from the beginning, we could hardly expect them to recognize signals from the noise, let alone take ownership. And in some cases, there is outright resentment of desperate policy makers faced with proliferation of tech solutions that aren’t built on a solid institutional base (especially if there may be a non-technical solution to the issue, prompting the growth of ‘unhackathon’ events in some cities).

In the absence of their voice, the open data movement risks become bureaucracy digitized. Or more elegantly ‘if in the year 2020 we are still crowdsourcing pothole locations as opposed to developing policy, we may all have collectively failed.’

3. Opposite of closed isn’t open

Ok, so maybe it is but not just open – open and easy to use. There’s a lot of push on governments to be more open and transparent. Instead, or maybe in addition to, there could be more focus on how to open up in a way that will stimulate engagement (and not bewilder).

A company that hosts the Maryland code of law charged citizens near $300,000 last year for quicker access to data – apparently being open, but difficult to navigate and find what you’re looking for isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (and it’s expensive).

So in re-opening the data in a user-friendly and restriction free-way, the state of Maryland will help citizens not only understand and engage more meaningfully with the data, but save money too. This seems like an issue that could bring empowered government and citizens to a meaningful discussion, doesn’t it?  (For another example of a government-led open and inviting idea, check out the Association of Government Accountants Citizen-Centric Reporting initiative).

4. Who is not online?

Today, right now, not everyone is online. Failing to account for these offline voices infringes on the very notion of democracy and highlights the struggle between participatory versus representative democracy.

In some ways even more striking, this silence of offline communities may be particularly damaging when it comes to a specific set of issues that should fill the space between empowered governments and citizens.

These are wicked problems, stubborn things with many unknowns, highly resistant to solutions (go no further than social exclusion or climate change, imposed at a hyper local, community level).

Or, as Alberto Cottica argues, they can be well meaning policies that hurt society. Feedback from the offline communities should count twice – once, because chances are that they suffer disproportionately as a result of wicked problems, and twice because that makes them best positioned to be a part of the solution.

Who makes sure that offline communities are involved in policy making 2.0?

One way or another, working for a development organization in the space between empowered governments and citizens, I face these issues almost daily.  I find that experiences from others, good and bad, can play a powerful role in working through them. So if you’ve got them, we can use them!

This post first appeared on the Voices from Eurasia blog
Photo Credit: Brandon Burke
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