I’d be a fool to think that I know best how my employer, Omidyar Network, should most effectively employ its resources to promote open government in Latin America. There are dozens if not hundreds of specialists who have much more experience and expertise than I do. But alas, I am the one who is tasked with developing a philanthropic strategy to promote transparency and openness in the region. And so I offer the following draft strategy to my readers and the larger transparency community with the hope that they will help make it better, make me smarter, fill in the gaps, point out the false assumptions, and recommend relevant research and allies.

It’s a pretty dry text without helpful examples, sexy anecdotes or funny pictures of cats, but I want to use it as an anchor to refer back to in future blog posts this week from the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, which has a special track dedicated to Open Cities.

I am extremely grateful for all feedback via the comments section below or by emailing me at oso@el-oso.net.

The Goal

This strategy aims to address ineffective governance and poor public service performance as it relates to residents of Latin American cities with populations above 2 million. Specifically it aims to address the following two problems:

  • Citizens and civil society organizations don’t have access to sufficient information about their government’s processes and activities in order to be informed citizens and to hold their government to account.
  • Citizens don’t have access to channels of political participation beyond voting in order to contribute ideas, incentivize effective governance, and penalize ineffective governance.

Though we eventually aim to impact the lives of all residents of the 33 Latin American cities with populations above 2 million, we will begin with cities that already have dedicated open government and open data initiatives, including Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Lima. The 33 most populous cities of Latin America have a combined population of 176 million and the region’s highest mobile and internet connectivity rates.

Our ultimate aim is to empower citizens with contextualized, accurate, timely information about their local governments and public services so that they can hold their governments to account and advocate for incentives that promote more effective governance and public service delivery.

What We’ve Got

  1. Citizens are not sufficiently informed by media, civil society, social networks, and academic institutions about the responsibilities and activities of public services in their cities in order to monitor their performance and advocate for improvement.
  2. City government agencies do not publish sufficient information in standardized, open-data formats about the activities and performance of public services that they administer.
  3. Civil society organizations do not have access to sufficiently disaggregated public spending information to monitor the political economy of city governments and advocate for spending policies that contribute to just, inclusive, sustainable cities.
  4. Federal regulators are not effective in enforcing federal laws that require city governments to comply with minimum standards that guarantee environmental protection, public health, access to housing, quality education, sustainable energy, inclusive urban planning, etc.
  5. Citizens have few channels of participation beyond elections to become involved in community governance, propose innovations, identify issues and monitor the resolution of those issues.

The underlying causes of the above phenomena are: 1) insufficient training of journalists, bloggers and academics regarding the interpretation and contextualization of government information, 2) insufficient training of public servants with respect to the collection, administration, and distribution of data, 3) a lack of political will rooted in missing incentives to change behavior and a lack of recognition by civil society when government advances, 4) the “capture” of regulatory agencies by the private sector, 5) a political culture of cynicism that does not celebrate civic values.

What We Want

  1. Media, civil society, bloggers, technologists and academic institutions add context and narrative to the raw data in order to make it more digestible and informative to the larger public via applications and journalism.
  2. City legislative bodies commit to publish timely data in standardized, raw formats about the activities and performance of public services, which are managed by city agencies. City legislative bodies also commit to publish timely and disaggregated public spending data.
  3. Civil society organizations monitor the political economy of city governments and advocate for spending policies that contribute to just, inclusive, sustainable cities. They collaborate with broadcast and networked media to explain and debate these policy recommendations among a wider public.
  4. Civil society organizations employ litigation and public pressure to incentivize federal regulators to enforce federal laws that require city governments to comply with minimum standards that protect the environment, public health, housing, education, energy, human services, etc.
  5. City legislative bodies adopt Open311 as a standard to solicit input from residents and to transparently demonstrate their performance of resolving submitted citizen complaints.

How To Get There

  1. Journalists, academic institutions, technologists, designers and bloggers are trained to better process, analyze, understand, and add context to raw data in order to tell stories with data that inform citizens about the responsibilities and performance of public services.
  2. Working groups of researchers, journalists, government officials, civil society organizations, technologists, and the private sector develop standards that meet the needs of residents, academic institutions, journalists, and technologists. (Eg. General Transit Feed Specification Reference)
  3. City legislative bodies commit to adopting and implementing select data standards by specific dates as part of a regional Open Cities Alliance modeled after the OGP. These commitments include training programs to improve capacity of public servants.
  4. Civil society organizations and academic institutions monitor performance of public services and advocate to legislative bodies and federal regulators for changes in policies and processes that incentivize improved performance. They also monitor public spending to advocate for changes in policy that engender cities that are just, sustainable, and inclusive. Finally, they recognize the progress made by government institutions.
  5. City legislative bodies commit to adopting and implementing Open311 to process and make transparent their efforts to resolve complaints and issues raised by residents.

The above points aim to address both the problems listed in “What We’ve Got” and their underlying causes.

The Resulting Strategy

Taking the above into account, the most important intervention points where Omidyar Network can add value are: setting standards, monitoring public services, monitoring public spending, contextualizing raw data, advocating for better policies, recognizing improvement in government effectiveness and public service delivery.

These interventions can be grouped into three main strategic pillars:

  1. Develop open data standards for cities based on the needs of their residents.
  2. Support the replicability of civic apps that deliver contextualized data about the responsibilities and performance of public services in addition to supporting innovative journalism that recognizes effective governance and penalizes ineffective governance.
  3. Contribute to the formation of a regional Open Cities Alliance modeled after the Open Government Partnership to 1) establish minimal requirements of openness from cities to join, 2) enable reformists from city governments to make commitments that advance greater openness, 3) position civil society organizations to monitor the implementation of those commitments, and 4) provide entrepreneurs with access to more public information to feed greater innovation and inform smarter urban planning.

I’ll leave it there for now. If you’d like more details about each of the three main pillars of the strategy, I’m happy to both discuss and write more. Over the next couple days I’ll be posting more thoughts, examples and anecdotes from OKFestival.

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