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What happens if ‘the people’ become the problem with open government?

Nathaniel Heller   |   January 31, 2017   |   Comments

In the last few months, I’ve observed a lot of hot-take hand wringing over whether the election of Trump and other current events spell the end (or at least an existential threat) to the open government movement (which emphasizes transparency, participation and accountability in public sector management) globally. Within weeks of the U.S. election, the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Paris featured keynote after keynote speaker, including political leaders such as French President Francois Hollande, lamenting the cascade of 2016 events that suggested a tidal wave of anti-elite, illiberal sentiment was preparing to wash away several years of progress opening up governments: the soft coup in Brazil; Brexit; crackdowns on civil society in many countries; increasing numbers of authoritarian movements taking and holding power in countries such as Hungary and Italy; the rejected peace referendum in Colombia; Trump’s election in the United States…the list seemed to grow longer and darker with each additional speaker.

Since the summit, I’ve also been part of multiple closed-door “strategy sessions” amongst open government doers and thinkers worrying about how best to defend the agenda. From those group catharsis and therapy sessions, two explanatory arguments seem to be emerging for what we’re witnessing in the world today and its potential impact on open government.

How current political movements around the world may affect open government

One, the darker view, is that that we’re indeed headed towards some sort of showdown between the forces of “open” versus “closed” government. This paradigm was first suggested as far back as 2011 in a provocative and seminal post by influential civic tech blogger David Eaves (“The geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed”) in which Eaves argued:

“It [The OGP] abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed. The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.”

Setting aside some of the breathless assumptions in Eaves’ post, there’s elegance in the binary “open versus closed” paradigm, and it continues to capture people’s imaginations. Thus the increasing angst around the fact that we’re “losing” countries from the “open” column (US, UK, Brazil) while worryingly adding those (and other) countries to the “closed” column. In response, some observers talk of proactively replenishing the ranks of the open column by recruiting fresh leadership from the likes of Justin Trudeau’s Canada and Mauricio Macri’s Argentina, where newly elected open government-minded administrations are settling in.

A second emerging perspective (somewhat more positive in outlook), is that we need to respond to current events by doubling down on making open government “matter” for people’s lives. Within the OGP itself this has already taken off, quietly, with a renewed focus on investing in and promoting open government reforms that matter for basic service delivery outcomes in health, education, water and sanitation, infrastructure, and social protection (full disclosure: I’ve been a major proponent of that shift within the OGP steering committee). The argument goes that if open government were to a) become more of a grassroots, broad based “movement” that, b) mattered more directly for people’s lives in tangible and perceptible ways (stronger learning outcomes for students, improved access to healthcare, more jobs, better roads), we c) wouldn’t be at the mercy of constantly-shifting geopolitics and electoral fortunes and could instead anchor support for open government in “the people,” politicians be damned.

Two blind spots in open government

In listening to and participating in these various debates, my takeaways and personal outlook are somewhat different. To me, the emerging lesson from 2016 is that we (as an open government community) have had two significant blind spots that are just now being exposed.

The first has been the belief that open government is inherently and normatively “good.” The second has been the belief that “the people” are reliably interested in public goods that reflect a progressive, liberal worldview. Both biases help to explain why the open government community has been so whipsawed by ongoing events.

  1. That open government is inherently “good” seems almost an afterthought but is indeed a normative claim that may not hold consistently in practice. I reflect back on the early years of the globalization debates of the early-1990s: was globalization good, bad, or neutral? Much ink was spilled debating this to death; what emerged, ultimately, was a consensus view that applies quite similarly to open government: globalization (and open government) isn’t good or bad. It’s simply a set of new pipes and plumbing that facilitate a novel way for information, power, finance, and influence to flow in the world. Sometimes those pipes carry positive outcomes and ideas and sometimes the opposite is true. But they are ultimately “dumb pipes,” to abuse a technology metaphor, and not hard wired to do good or ill.
  2. In addition, we in the open government community seem to ignore the complex reality that people often vote against their economic interests; primarily consume information from sources that reflect their worldview; and reject facts that contradict their views. In fact, some studies show that when presenting someone with information that challenges their convictions, they actually dig in deeper. It’s called the backfire effect.

What does this all mean for open government moving forward?

First, putting all of our eggs into a “people powered” open government movement seems risky, at least to me (and I’ve written about this before). We should absolutely continue to focus on making the links between open government and improvements in service delivery that matter to people’s lives. But it’s a stretch to say we can ignore political leadership if we’re serious about sustaining the agenda. In short: we have to find a way to make open government work in a Trump/Brexit/Temer era. At times, this might mean playing up the coarser, instrumental value of open government (its ability to leverage citizens as a “check” against elite politicians, or to monitor public spending by “out of touch” technocrats and bureaucrats) relative to simpler intrinsic claims (“it’s the right thing to do”).

Second, we need to be mindful of the potentially perverse abuses of power that open government provides in moments of nationalistic anxiety and rising sentiment against “the others.” There are no rules that say participatory budgeting can’t be used to allocate more public funding for mass deportations of immigrants, or that open data efforts can’t be abused to aggregate and track the trends and activities of minority population groups. Over-zealous anti-corruption campaigns often struggle with a slippery slope that ends up in political witch hunts. None of this is to say that open government is suddenly a threat to democratic consolidation, but we shouldn’t take its inherent goodness for granted.

Open government is just a set of dumb pipes. It’s up to us to fill those pipes with tolerance and inclusion.

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