Last Thursday I was involved in a conversation concerning whether a particular jurisdiction should introduce specific legislation or an action plan for open government. This jurisdiction is in a developing economy, facing numerous challenges that range from relatively high levels of corruption to high unemployment, from inadequacy of some infrastructure to high percentage of emigrants looking for jobs and opportunities abroad.
The jurisdiction is looking aggressively at information and communication technology as a means to accelerate development and possibly leapfrog in selected areas.
The question was how to prioritize open government against the many other technology-intensive initiatives they are considering: these include automation and reengineering of government processes to become more citizen-centric and business friendly and development of local computing facilities to support both government and enterprises.
The right way to answer that question and rate open government in their portfolio is to ask a different question: what strategic objectives that the jurisdiction has set for itself would be best achieved by deploying some form of open government plan?
One might say that greater transparency is highly desirable. However “transparency” means a lot of different things.
At what level would transparency be more effective? To engage citizens in policy development or to provide a level playing field to all potential suppliers and prevent corruption in public procurement? Or to provide more information to emigrants and reconnect them with a view to re-insourcing skills? Or to nurture the development of service industries based on the use of open government data?
The problem with open government is that nobody can say it is worthless and, as a principle, everybody would buy into it. However, when it comes to articulating its return on the investment, both the nature, the amount and the timeframe for the return are difficult to predict.
Indeed, open government is a leap of fate. The question is: is it a leap you can afford?