Beyond Technology for Transparency

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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.

11 Comments

  1. Hay Oso, great thinking, Very interested in the reflections, I may repost is somehwere with a link here would that be ok?

    Reply
  2. David,

    As usual, your points are spot on: a bit more clarity would certainly benefit those working in the field. I would go further and say that “open government” is even more amorphous (and conveniently interpreted) than “technology for transparency”.

    I would disagree however that we are just at the introduction chapter of “open government” when it comes to more objective types of interventions, such as technology for increasing civic participation. In these cases, there is at least 20 years of literature in the field (e.g. e-democracy, e-participation), which does provide us with a good idea of what does and does not work.

    Moreover, if we acknowledge that some fundamental social and political processes go unchanged despite the introduction of technology (in the field of participation, anti-corruption, public efficiency, etc.) then we have an even broader body of knowledge, with many chapters already written.

    The fact that the echo chamber of open government ignores this body of knowledge does not mean that the knowledge is not there. Unfortunately, even many of the academics that jump on the open government bandwagon seem to ignore the existing body of evidence (just check the bibliographic references of most “opengov” papers).

    This is why, in my opinion, your proposal hits the nail on the head. Maybe more clarity in the usage of terms and concepts might nudge those working in the space to better connect with what we already know when it comes to the use of technology in social and political processes.

    Thanks for starting a much needed conversation.

    Reply
    • David, Tiago,
      Thanks for sharing article and comment. Like them a lot.
      Further to concern about narrow interpretation of what open government should be (David), and the phrase ”Better connect with what we (= someone of us) already know (s)” (Tiago):
      This is what I manage step-by-step, as illustrated for instance at http://philippines.actor-atlas.info/pdb:aklan
      – use of COFOG to cover government 360 degrees (or close to)
      – link to earlier reports that are available already in the various COFOG sections), in this case e-SLGPR summary reports from Local Governance Performance Management System in the Philippines (http://www.blgs.gov.ph/lgpmsv2/cmshome/index.php?pageID=23&rpt_page=summary_slgpr)

      What is out there (Actor Atlas and development dashboards) is a single person’s curation output. What if thousands of government officials would start embracing some systematics in the communication of existing data before creating new data?

      My suggestion: government’s duty to do this must become part of a nation’s constitution (ref. the social compact). Actually, in many constitutions, only an actualisation (of the interpretation) of the articles on the openess of governement articles’ interpretation is required: just reflect best practices of what we can do with contemporary technology.

      Technology is an enabler, yet without resolving the mandate issue, we join the company of Don Quixote.

      Reply
    • That’s a very good point, Tiago. I shouldn’t claim that there isn’t any evidence when the reality is that I’ve only read about 10% of the relevant academic papers out there that I’m even aware of. Thanks to you, my reading list has grown even more. :) What would be helpful are summaries of the relevant arguments of each paper. I find that most academic papers are about 80% noise and 20% signal.

      Reply
      • Fair enough: distinguishing from noise and signal remains a problem. Maybe all papers should have, besides an abstract, a “policy relevance” paragraph.

        Reply
  3. Thanks for the round up! Two wandering thoughts:

    * At least part of open government is about internalizing a set of cutting edge processes into the public sector: design thinking for product design, agile and iterative development during implementation (fail forward), peer-based and network production models. The product is the process. What are the implications of this from a funding and strategy perspective?

    * We need to think more carefully about the causal stories wrapped up in our deployment of these tools. Often, for example, the story is: more access to information leads to more citizenship. The issue is that information only leads to citizenship when a number of conditions are in place (i.e. the information is new, citizens have a sense of efficacy, etc.). We rarely articulate these conditions. The same is true on the government side.

    Reply
  4. Tx Jude! This is a very interesting call for clarifying the purpose of those many organisations rallying behind the open data flag in the development field.

    As we’ve seen in the publishing aid data trend for instance, it is one thing to get the info out in the public sphere, it is quite another to make sense of it. There is nothing like objective data in my world. Here is a nice blog about this “Why publishing aid data does not equal ‘democratizing development” you can find here: http://aidnography.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/why-publishing-aid-data-does-not-equal.html

    In relative terms, the open data movement is still new. The right to access information has only emerged in the world in the past five decades. We are just seeing some positive results as far as the European institutions are concerned. This is what I found a few weeks ago when I attended a event in Brussels on Participation, Ethics and transparency. Here is my blog about it:http://rdwbizz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/access-to-info-from-eu-child-friendly.html

    Reply
  5. Thank you for super interesting post David,
    I checked the Kenyan open data portal if they added the information requested in the blog posted iHub. I couldn’t find anything that matched their wishes on police data neither on tourism data. That is why I’m reluctant to think open gov/ data initiatives are such a great enabler in developing societies. Pessimistically thinking, I think it can be a beautiful facade, easy to be used in PR activities.

    I’d like to focus on anticorruption work only here, as usually I’m afraid of hurray-optimistic approach that open government data will solve the problem of corruption just by existing somewhere in the virtual space.

    I can see the role of open government data in technology for better advocacy, protest, technology for the performance of public services, however I think it can be done without open government data as well. But if the open government data equals real (faster) access to information it can be the basis for few actions you pinned in: reducing corruption, making public administration more efficient, holding government agencies to account, and increasing the trust between citizens and governments, designing public policies.

    I’m afraid some governments (national and local) are tempted with publicity of open data shell with no actual access to information. In order to be really open (to negative feedback as well) the point is in giving the citizens the access to other data in a machine-friendly format, one would like to use for anticorruption work.

    That is why, from what I observe technology for transparency should mean technology for better access to information first. But the anticorruption struggles would still need to be done mostly with traditional tools. I agree here with jkgoldst about conditions for citizenship.

    Anyway thank you again for thoughts provoking post.

    Reply
  6. Hi David, hi everybody,
    very relevant and timely reflections.

    Related to this general subject of “moving beyond transparency”, last month I participated in a workshop on “Collaborative development of eServices” in Brussels.

    There I critizised the lack of conceptual clarity existing in the mainstream conception of Open Government, and its current hiper-focus on transparency and open government data.
    I presented a conceptual model (the “Participation Schemes”) that aims to characterize the main dimensions of “collaborative participation” and tries to represent them in a reasonably straight-forward way.
    I’m still waiting for the video of my intervention, but you can already download the presentation here:

    http://roadtolorien.kyopol.net/participation-schemes-presented-in-brussels/

    The model is being developed by me, as the project manager of the Asociación Ciudades Kyosei, in collaboration with Álvaro Ramírez-Alujas, the author of the first paper you reference in your post.
    In the next weeks I plan to deliver, through a series of posts, more details on the model.

    If we could get some little funding, we will try to create a web-service that makes easier to use Participation Schemes to describe, analyse, design and communicate on participatory initiatives.

    If the model could be really used to characterize important dimensions of participation, it could also contribute to improve communication in this area and thus reduce the noise to signal problem you mentioned before.
    By now it is just an “alfa” version, that needs to be improved.
    And probably it should stay in a “continuous beta state”… to remain flexible and meaningful. :-)

    Kind regards,
    Pedro

    Reply

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