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Let’s admit it: open government is political

By Luminate

Over the past few years I’ve observed the open movement focusing on the power of technology. The rationale seems to be: ‘fix first the technological, and all things ‘open’ will fall into place.’

But we need to acknowledge that open government is about recalibrating the power dynamic between governments and citizens, putting power back in the hands of people. In that sense, it is a very political endeavour. The systems from which we are demanding openness are not ‘open by default’ for any number of reasons, and freshly signed commitments and national action plans do not automatically guarantee success in citizen empowerment.

Perhaps implementing technological change has been more practical and realistic. We wanted to show how open data could boost the economy, create jobs, make government more efficient - all of the arguments governments want to hear.

But today, we are faced with a world where political currents are turning against openness. Freedoms are being suppressed, technologies increasingly deployed to establish surveillance states. “Open-washing” - an enacting of open data policies without full implementation - poses a threat to the gains in the open agenda.  

Going forward, it is clear to me that for all the technological solutions we devise to advance open governments, we need political ones to complement them now more than ever. The political is murky and uneasy.  It is long term, time intensive and about shifting mindsets. Yet, it is mandatory. We cannot advance openness in a closing world.

Here are four areas we must focus on as we tackle the political dimensions of open government:

1. An open Web - and our online rights - are fundamental 

We must keep the Web open. It serves as a technological enabler of the open movement, but is increasingly under threat. We must stop the growing trend of Internet shutdowns, censorship, surveillance and crackdowns on free expression.

We must also fight to preserve the shrinking space for civic action and the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms. So while more data sets and nodes of information are publicly available, searchable or usable, the very act of using them to pursue accountability is increasingly a risk for journalists, civic technologists and ordinary citizens alike. If we don’t protect these rights, citizens will not feel free and empowered to use the open data that is available to them for positive change.

2. Open policies must survive political transitions

Another roadblock for the movement’s progression at the political level is that - all too often - the commitments, action plans and activities to open up our governments are barely surviving political transitions. The lack of continuity speaks to the flawed systems to which we desire to embed and entrench openness.

The commitments and action plans in play must have continuity and live beyond the career of any individual champion or political party.  While it does take visionaries and champions to build institutions and good practices, they must outlive the individuals to create sustainable institutions and firm value systems. And we need to the make the case not on the basis of left vs right ideology, but on the basis of what the fundamental citizen-state relationship should look like. If we fail to embed this shift in the citizen-state relationship throughout government and across party lines, we will struggle to make the open movement sustainable.

3. Empowering citizens means empowering everyone

In assessing the technological ‘vertical’ in the open movement, we have to acknowledge that access is nowhere near universal, nor equal. Part of what makes the open agenda political is that we want to change the balance of power by giving a voice to groups in society who have been silenced or ignored. If we are to truly empower everyone, a large portion of the world’s population is currently marginalised and needs help catching up.

Open government relies heavily on technology, and increasingly on algorithms - both of which tend to be designed by the groups who are in power. We must never forget that neither technology nor algorithms are neutral. They reflect the experiences and biases of their creators. This is why the principle of designing with and not just for people is crucial.

Right now, the reality is that the beneficiaries of open data and open government probably look a lot like the creators: white, male, online, urban and affluent. If we want to increase the number of ever-elusive impact stories of open data and open government, we must do some creative thinking and align the digital equality movement with the open movement.

4. Women must be at the heart of the open agenda

Laura Neuman points out that the potential for the Open Government Partnership, in particular, to address the “inequities facing women and to promote greater inclusion is largely ignored”. Gender neutral policies and principles, such as those envisioned in the Open Government Partnership,  do not necessarily address the very real and dire gender inequalities in our world today. Currently, “[fewer] than 25 of the thousands of national commitments mention women, gender or equity. For the second-round of action plans, only two national plans had commitments specific to women—less than 5% of all action plans.”

A gender lens to open government must be a non-negotiable principle, practice and demand. We require gender-responsive policies and action plans, both within government and civil society actors operating in this realm. The intended benefits and goals of open government cannot be celebrated if women are not beneficiaries as well! Nor should this gender focus be ‘sidelined’ for gender experts, it must take centre stage, including in budgets prepared for all open government efforts.

Open Government 2025: What’s the way forward?

As leaders in open government, civic technology and technology leaders convene in London to scan the horizon, these are some perspectives that must be brought into the discussions and plans for the way forward. Empowering new groups is political. Rectifying information imbalances between governments, elites and average citizens is political. Pushing back against increasing authoritarianism and the crackdown on free expression is political. Our movement is political, and it is time to admit it. There is much to be celebrated in the open movement thus far and our technological advances are critical to our successes to date. There have also been failures, and I hope very little harm, if any, created along the way.

The open agenda can help in ensuring that no one is left behind, as is the rallying call for the Sustainable Development Goals. By ensuring that we do not ignore or sideline aspects such as the operational political environment, we will be on the right track for open government to become modus operandi.

Now is the moment for us to embed the open agenda across government, and ensure it is truly for everyone. That is the only way we will see real change on the ground in the lives of citizens - they must all be a part of it.

Hear from Nanjira Sambuli and other open government leaders at Open Up 2016 on November 15 in London. Follow the conversation on Twitter at #OpenUp16 and learn more on the event website