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Three years ago some colleagues and I launched the Technology for Transparency Network. Back then I thought it was a pretty good description of what we were after. Today I confess that I haven’t the slightest idea of the meaning of “technology for transparency.” Let’s be frank: when we say “technology” we’re basically referring to a medium of communication. That could be an iPhone app, but in most countries it’s more likely to be a community radio station or photocopier. Similarly, what we call “transparency” is simply information; specifically information that is produced by the government. So, “technology for transparency” essentially means, “a medium of information.” I can’t think of a more vague, all-encompassing, indeterminte concept.

The obvious questions, then, is, “information for what?” Three academic papers have been published recently that help us come to a deeper understanding of the implications of that most elementary question.

The first paper, Open Government is the Answer: What was the Question? by Álvaro Ramírez-Alujas, provides us with helpful context (in Spanish) to understand the debate that has arisen over the past year about the meaning and mission of “open government.”

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The second paper, The New Ambiguity of Open Government by Harlan Yu and David Robinson, argues that we have lost the comma between “Open Government, Data” y “Open, Government Data.” The former refers to government information that can be used by journalists and activists to fight against corruption and hold the government to account to ensure that they fulfill their commitments and responsibilities. According to the authors this movement of transparency for accountability began in the United States in the post-war period of the 1940s and 1950s with campaigns by groups like the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The latter concept (Open, Government Data) is focused more on the distribution and reuse of government data in open formats to strengthen the open web and create useful applications for citizens. This second movement arose at the end of the 1990’s after the crash of the dot-com economy, and was consolidated at a 2007 meeting in Sebastopol, California.

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Yu and Robinson clarify that the open government movement has its roots in the search for accountability and the fight against corruption. But the open data movement rarely aspires to diminish corruption or increase accountability. The most popular applications that use open data are related to public transit, restaurants, hospitals, the environment, taxis, and education. The concern of Yu and Robinson is that a government could earn the badge of open government by launching an open data portal without making any progress toward greater accountability or a reduction in corruption. In fact, for many commentators, this is exactly what took place in Kenya.

Which brings us to the third and last paper by Jeremy Weinstein and Josh Goldstein: The Benefits of a Big Tent: Opening Up Government in Developing Countries. Weinstein is a professor at Stanford University and was one of the architects of the of the Open Government Partnership while he worked at the White House’s National Security Council. Goldstein is a consultant for the World Bank who was involved in the creation of Kenya’s open data initiative. In response to Yu and Robinson, they argue that, while we can always benefit from more clarity of language, there are some advantages in the melding agendas of the various movements for accountability, open data, and anti-corruption.

When Kenya first announced that they would launch an open data portal as one of their commitments in the Open Government Partnership, they attracted criticism from commentators like Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity who argued that Kenya has serious problems related to accountability and corruption, and they should focus their energy on necessary reforms rather than shiny open data portals.

But according to Weinstein and Goldstein, the experience in Kenya reveals that the mere organization of government to data to make it available to the public can lead a government toward greater accountability to its citizens. They mention two specific examples. First, when the Kenyan government launched their open data portal, civil society responded by identifying those important data sets that were missing. This dialog, according to the authors, can lead to necessary social pressure for the government to release data that are more politically sensitive. Their second argument is that the publication of educational data led to the creation of Eduweb, an online portal that provides users with information about school performance. According to the authors, the site has already affected the internal policies in the Ministry of Education, though they don’t specify the details.

Having read these three papers, I realized that I agree with all the arguments they present. I agree with Weinstein and Goldstein that the communities of open government and open data can and should collaborate to achieve more together. But I also agree with Yu and Robinson that we would all benefit from more clarity when we speak of our objectives. In order to achieve that clarity I propose that we stop discussing “technology for transparency,” but rather speak of:

Technology for transparency:

  • reducing corruption
  • making public administration more efficient
  • holding government agencies to account
  • improving the performance and efficiency of public services
  • informing citizens
  • increasing the trust between citizens and governments
  • increasing civic participation
  • increasing voter turnout
  • diminishing poverty
  • designing public policies
  • advocacy
  • protest
  • etc ….

What are the implications of greater clarity of our ultimate objectives?

  • Donors and multi-laterals communicate and fund our objectives with greater clarity
  • Organizations that aim to inform/empower citizens with information and organizations that seek greater accountability can collaborate without competing
  • Every intervention that is funded has its own theory of change and is evaluated
  • We all recognize that we still don’t have evidence of what works and what doesn’t
  • We act as scientists, always developing, testing, and adapting our hypotheses

There is a sense of open government fatigue among many of us who have been working in the sector over the past five years. Often it can feel like we’ve made little progress and we’re still participating in the same echo chambers without mainstreaming the movement. At the same time, I think that many of us are coming to the realization that these past five years were spent just writing the introduction, and only now are we starting the first chapter. Hopefully we’re prepared for the long journey and we can consolidate our efforts with more clarity, but without the perception of competition.

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