Towards Open Government

August 14, 2016

In the late 17th and early 18th century, when the system of parliamentary democracy still employed in most countries was conceived, the concept of instant mass communications did not exist. Marconi would not be born for another 160 odd years and Sir Tim Berners Lee was many generations away from inventing the World Wide Web. It is reasonable therefore to conclude that those who conceived our so-called modern system of parliamentary democracy did not view the level of Openness and Transparency that would allow the general public to have access to the governmental decision-making process as a high priority.

While parliamentary systems have evolved enormously since the early 1700s, many of the core principles, and perhaps more importantly conventions, that apply to parliaments and legislatures right around the world are still in place. I would argue that the systems of governance adopted and carefully guarded by national administrations are no longer fit for purpose. We need something that will facilitate true openness and transparency. However, the mechanisms for changing to a system of Open Government, in a peaceful and pragmatic way are perhaps not yet clear.

The demand for change I would argue is being led by community and academic organisations. It is being facilitated by the information revolution that now allows information to be rapidly communicated to citizens in a meaningful way, thus allowing ordinary people to have a real input into many of the decisions that are being made in their name.

For the purposes of this article I am not going to argue whether Open Government is a good or a bad thing. That is discussed in many excellent articles including one by Chris Eccles entitled ‘Does open government make for good government?’[1] He concludes that ‘open government is an important lens on the delivery of good government, and that it supports good government’. In his article, Eccles quotes US President Barack Obama who says ‘Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government’. In 2013 Obama signed an executive order[2] establishing the principle of Openness by Default in relation to Open Government Data in the USA. This was underpinned by the release of the G8 Open Data Charter[3] in Belfast in 2013. This is now an established principle in many countries.

Many people ask the question, if Open Government is such a good thing why hasn’t it happened before now? The simple answer is that it was not a realistic option before our modern system of mass communication and dissemination was put in place (in particular the evolution of the internet and the web). Before the later years of the 20th century, it was simply impossible to bring large numbers of citizens up to speed on multiple issues in the timeframe needed to put legislation in place, and to make governmental decisions in an informed and conclusive way. That is why the system of representative democracy evolved whereby we elect representatives to make laws on our behalf. However, we now need to consider if we should continue to do that while allowing much greater participation from ordinary citizens.

But this then brings us to the issue of algorithms in government. As noted by other contributions to this special edition, there is a fear that mass surveillance, data-mining and predictive analytics often lead to greater opacity rather than greater transparency. This phenomenon is discussed in the contributions from Kennedy, Danaher and Morison. If these authors are correct, then the very technologies that facilitate the Open Government movement may thwart its underlying aims.

However, it is abundantly clear that algorithms in themselves are neither transparent nor opaque. It is the logical instructions formulated by human beings and the public perception of the same that determine the transparency level of a governance algorithm.

While many countries worldwide are now committed to putting Open Government in place, the biggest challenge is how to move from a system of secrecy-by-default to one of openness-by-default while continuing to protect the privacy rights of individual citizens and organisations. At the time of writing there were 69 countries signed up to the Open Government Partnership[4] (OGP) a civil society network based in San Francisco and Washington DC in the USA, that encourages governments to put action plans in place to meet five grand challenges.[5] It is the civil society aspect of this group that ensures a rigorous approach to transparency and that very much serves to counterbalance the fears of algorithmic governance. They wish to ensure that all algorithms used by government are published and freely open to inspection by the public.

The OGP’s five grand challenges, agreed by consensus, are as follows:-

1.     Improving Public Services – introducing measures that address the full spectrum of citizen services including health, education, criminal justice, water, electricity, telecommunications, and any other relevant service areas by fostering public service improvement or private sector innovation.

2.     Increasing Public Integrity – introducing measures that address corruption and public ethics, access to information, campaign finance reform and media and civil society freedom.

3.     More Effectively Managing Public Resources – introducing measures that address budgets, procurement, natural resources and foreign assistance.

4.     Creating Safer Communities – introducing measures that address public safety, the security sector, disaster and crisis response and environmental threats.

5.     Increasing Corporate Accountability – introducing measures that address corporate responsibility on issues such as the environment, anti-corruption, consumer protection and community engagement. 

These are effectively a set of principles that facilitate the efforts of governments to put in place their own action plans to ensure greater transparency and openness in the five areas identified. Each government puts together its own set of actions allowing them to move towards a more open system of governance. This is of course fraught with difficulties as reality often fails to meet expectations. However, work carried out by the eGov unit at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway[6] identifies how to measure this gap between expectations and realities on the ground. This is achieved by referencing five international governance and socio?economic indicators that should be impacted by open government programs. In other words, if governments are successfully responding to the five grand challenges, there should be some measurable change in the key indicators.

The indicators referenced by the eGov unit are:-

1.     CPI. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. (Transparency International, 2014)[7]

2.     WGI. World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. (Kaufmann, Kraay, & Mastruzzi, 2011).[8]

3.     UNEGOV. United Nations E?Government Survey 2014. (United Nations, 2014).[9]

4.     GCR. World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015. (Porter, Sachs, & Warner, 2014).[10]

5.  ODB. Open Data Barometer report, 2015 (World Wide Web Foundation, 2015). [11]

Measuring this gap is crucial in terms of informing government agencies, academics and citizens groups as to how much progress is being made in reality. This will allow them to ensure that future action plans can focus on the areas where progress really needs to be made.

A quiet revolution is going on as we speak with changes to facilitate open government being implemented in many countries around the world. However, progress is slow and citizens are getting increasingly impatient with governments insistent on holding on to a culture of secrecy rather than going boldly into the modern era of openness by default championed by Barack Obama.

A number of contributors to the workshop on Algorithmic Governance held at the National University of Ireland, Galway on 18 March 2016 raised very serious issues in relation to the transparency of algorithmic governance. I would argue that a clear legislative framework needs to be developed in this area with a strong emphasis on citizen’s rights, privacy, openness and transparency. By including citizen-led organisations such as the Open Government Partnership in the discourse, it very much strengthens the likelihood of achieving an acceptable outcome.

Former Irish Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin is a researcher with the eGov unit at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics[12] in the National University of Ireland, Galway 














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