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Open Government Partnership: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By Andrea Di Maio | April 17, 2012 | 1 Comment

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On April 17 and 18 Brasilia hosts the first Open Government Partnership conference. With an impressive line up of dignitaries and experts, this conference aims at solidifying an initiative started last year and aimed at coalescing support and activity for open government around the globe.

The overall goal is a noble one, and aggregating interest from such a diverse range of countries on the topics of openness, transparency and accountability is a remarkable achievement. The agenda of the event is very rich and combines regional breakout sessions, which can explore similarities among neighboring countries, and topical breakout sessions, which look at information access, legislative aspects, lessons learned. There is a fair balance of government and non-government speakers, and certainly a great opportunity for attendees to exchange their experiences.

However there is a danger is that this important initiative veers toward the best practice model that has been – and still is – so pernicious for e-government. Usually few countries that happen to be more advanced in their thinking provide a blueprint of maturity models, business cases, strategic plans, and other countries follow suit.

Earlier today I had an inquiry with a regional government in a developing country, and the issue of the e-government maturity model supported by the UN came up, Such a model – like many – favors citizen-facing services and is not too helpful for the kind of services delivered by non-citizen-facing agencies, but yet the question was about how to comply with it , even if it makes little sense.. We have seen in the recent past how running after benchmarks have made countries waste some of their resources by e-enabling services that were not of a high priority or at the right level of maturity, to then face significant sustainability issues going forward.

The purpose, orientation, urgency of open government varies across different jurisdictions. It is important to preserve such diversity, while making sure that the basic principles stay the same. However the risk is that, in order to find the broadest possible common ground among participants, the debate focuses on the “how” rather than on the “why”.

Just take a look at the top ten commitments that participating countries claim in their plans. The vast majority is about increasing transparency, very few are about actual service delivery and almost none is about using open government principles for sustainable efficiency.

Even the template for country action plans contains some self-referencing wording when describing how countries should relate their open government commitment to some “grand challenges”:

Each commitment should have its own short paragraph identifying what the commitment is, how it will contribute to greater transparency, accountability and/or citizen engagement, who will be involved in implementing the commitment, and what the government hopes to accomplish by making this commitment. There should also be a brief discussion of how the specific commitments respond to public feedback generated through consultations.

The very problem is the reversal of cause and effect. Rather than showing how a commitment contributes to transparency, accountability and engagement, the plan should show how transparency, accountability and engagement can support a commitment to solve a “grand challenge”.  Only by using open government to solve government problems rather than for the sake of openness will it stick and become part of the normal course of business.

It is probably too early to say, but both the line up and the tone of the event look more self celebrative, with people preaching to the converted. There is an interesting session on building the business case, and I hope it triggers a serious conversation about how to measure the real impact and success (or lack thereof) of open government.

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1 Comment

  • Mark Diner says:

    I agree Andrea, but perhaps there is a natural evolution that must happen and this conference is only the first iteration of that evolution. Thinking of myself I had to progress through a number of learnings and moments of epiphany to finally come to what you point out as so obvious above.

    Let’s celebrate this first step, then encourage the next natural stage and press governments to start thinking about why; and not just how.

    I would argue, however, that rather a commitment to solve the “grand challenge” they must consider a few small, less risky challenges first.