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Last week Ivan Krastev published “The Transparency Conspiracy,” which argues that greater government transparency will not “restore citizens’ faith in their political institutions.” (Krastev made a similar argument in a recent TED talk, which I responded to here.) I agree with Krastev’s main argument, but I don’t understand who he is arguing against. Most groups that advocate for greater transparency aren’t seeking to “restore citizens’ faith in their political institutions”; rather, they are seeking more effective and more responsive governance.

But what is governance, and how do we measure its effectiveness and responsiveness to the needs of citizens? A new, landmark paper by Francis Fukuyama appropriately titled “What is Governance?” offers a framework to think through different approaches to the measurement of good governance, or as he describes it, “the beginning of an effort to better measure governance, which at this point will amount to nothing more than an elaboration of the issue’s complexity and the confused state of current discussions.” Measuring good governance is an issue of constant concern to the Government Transparency team of Omidyar Network. How do we know if the interventions and institutions we support bring about more effective and responsive governance? We have considered governance indices like the Democracy Index, Freedom House, the Polity Project, and the Worldwide Governance Indicators project, but as Fukuyama notes, such indices focus on “political institutions that limit or check power—democratic accountability and rule of law— but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.”

In other words, while there are various attempts to measure efforts to constrain government malfeasance, far less thinking has been done as to how we evaluate positive government performance. Do we measure good governance based on citizen satisfaction? Representation? Participation? Impartiality? Effective use of public funds? The quality of public services? Procedural effectiveness and meritocratic promotion? I won’t go through the four approaches of measurement that Fukuyama outlines and their relative pros and cons, but I can’t recommend this paper enough for anyone working on transparency, accountability, and governance. The paper is part of Fukuyama’s latest project, the Governance Project, which aims to develop measurements of good governance and apply them to China and the United States. One of the project’s goals is to disentangle the assumption that good governance is dependent on democracy. As he writes in the paper, “The current orthodoxy in the development community is that democracy and good governance are mutually supportive. I would argue that this is more of a theory than an empirically demonstrated fact, and that we cannot empirically demonstrate the connection if we define one to include the other.”

Image 1  GAM protest

Fukuyama’s paper is also highly relevant to civil society organizations, which almost always view their role as one of constraining the evils of government. This is especially true in Latin America where, Peter Spink observes, there is still “a weak coverage of very basic civil rights. Absence of documentation, problems with access to justice, imprisonment without trial and a lack of public security are still, sadly, part of daily life for many.” Most Latin American civil society organizations work to restrain the government’s capacity to do harm rather than enhance its capacity to do good.

The vast majority of the members of our Government Transparency portfolio also focus on constraining the negative aspects of government. A notable exception is Code for America, which aims to strengthen the capacity of local governments through innovation and cultural disruption. They pair young, tech-savvy fellows with city governments where they develop and implement innovative projects. However, before they start their work with city governments, each class of fellows participates in a month-long prep course to prepare them for their fellowship. David Eaves, who leads the prep course, recently described its objectives and focus areas.

In related news, to mark the launch of Gavin Newsom’s new book, Citizenville, Code for America announced the “Citizenville Challenge” which seeks specific innovation-related commitments from city governments. A sample chapter of Citizenville is available on Slate.

In other transparency-related news this week:

  • Next week the Knight Foundation will launch its latest News Challenge on open government, announces John Bracken. Writing about the forthcoming News Challenge, Anil Dash says the open government movement needs to build on its learnings.
  • One of Knight Foundaton’s biggest successes from its News Challenge was EveryBlock, which received $1.1 million of Knight funding in 2008 and was acquired by MSNBC.com in 2009. This week NBC shut the site down. Dan Sinker, who now leads the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project offers a glass-half-full obituary.
  • Michael Gurstein argues that, in order for open data to benefit the lives of those who depend the most on government services, we should view it as a service, not a product. Such an approach, argues Gurstein, would help address criticism that open data facilitates a neo-liberal agenda that is focused more on economic growth than social inclusion.

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