The Business of Transparency

Following is the full version of an article that was recently published in the Guardian, arguing that the nascent ‘open government’ movement should focus on social justice and enabling citizens to hold power to account, rather than wealth creation and the technology industry.

“In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress.” Thus spoke President Obama at the UN General Assembly in September 2010.

This initial call to action gave rise to a new initiative called the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Last week senior government officials and campaigners from around 60 countries gathered in London for the OGP’s second annual summit to announce new voluntary commitments to open government, and for talks about freedom of information, civic participation, whistleblower protection, corporate accountability, and many other things.

Prime Minister David Cameron opened the event with the announcement that the UK would be cracking down on hidden company ownership – in a move which was widely celebrated by transparency, anti-corruption and tax justice campaigners. Elaborate networks of shell companies are often used for a range of illicit and unethical activities – from corruption to arms trafficking, terrorist financing to illegal tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. Making the true owners of companies part of the public record will enable journalists, campaigners and others outside government to start to unpick and expose these dark networks and the money that flows through them.

Apart from this announcement, one of the focal points for Cameron’s talk was the importance of open government for economic growth and innovation. Alluding to the work of Amartya Sen, he contended that open governments are conducive to economic prosperity, whereas “closed governments breed poverty”. In the discussion following his speech he talked about the potential of digital data from governments as “an enormous wealth creator”.

Cameron’s speech typified a broader pivot in open government discourse in recent years from political accountability and social justice towards economic growth and digital innovation, from holding power to account to supporting startups. In recent years senior officials from the US and the UK have started alluding to a trinity of “open governments, open societies, and open economies” in high level transparency talks, as well as to the potential of digital technologies and digital information for innovative new businesses and growth. In addition to the kinds of panels you might expect at a transparency summit, there were also sessions on public-private partnerships, entrepreneurs in civic innovation, and smart cities. Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee remarked in his closing talk, “for me always the most exciting piece of it at the end of the day is economic value”.

What is open government really all about? What should it be about? Last year two researchers at Princeton wrote a paper about the increasing ambiguity of the phrase ‘open government’ in its contemporary usage – contending that while it used to carry a “hard political edge”, referring to “politically sensitive disclosures of government information” pushed for by transparency and accountability campaigners, it now increasingly refers to technologies for sharing information and “politically neutral” regimes of disclosure which allow even the most draconian and regressive of governments to self-describe as ‘open’.

In other words, they argued, open government advocates risk conflating technological openness with political openness – of associating the openness and usability of information, software, standards, and the digital architecture of government with the openness of official institutions and processes to the citizens they are supposed to serve. While sometimes it may be more more comfortable for governments to highlight their plans to ‘go digital’ or to enable new businesses by opening up official data, transparency advocates in should not be distracted from its mission to enable citizens to hold power to account and to fight for social and environmental justice.

Perhaps part of the issue is the way in which open government is increasingly considered to be a tool for transforming inputs into the desired outputs, agnostic as to who is using it and for what purpose. To take a crass example: surely open government should not be about making public institutions even more permeable to the influence of big money – whether fossil fuel lobbyists or large companies seeking lucrative contracts. To take another example, the current government under Cameron’s leadership has also generally been very canny in steering the UK’s transparency agenda to support its politics of austerity, encouraging citizens to “join the hunt for government savings” and to “root out waste” – perhaps not a priority for local citizen groups fighting to protect frontline public services.

Surely what matters is not openness per se, but way in which this openness is used to improve the lives of citizens: to reduce inequality, to bring more people out of poverty, to tackle corruption and injustice, to increase access to education and healthcare, to mitigate the effects of catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate, and so on. In other words to ensure that states and public institutions are being used to promote the wellbeing of citizens, rather than the interests of wealthy and powerful elites. Perhaps open government talks might benefit from being less procedural and more substantive in their approach. For example, by foregrounding issues rather than instruments, values rather than processes, and through more proactive engagement with citizens and campaigners who usually have little to do with open government policy formation about the transparency and accountability challenges they face.

The OGP has potential to be a hugely invaluable way for citizens and civil society groups to engage with the civil servants and state officials who represent them. It is an opportunity for them to have frank discussions about their aspirations and concerns in an impartial extra-national context. But for this to happen, the OGP must keep its focus firmly on how states can better serve and be more responsive to the needs of citizens, and should not be sidetracked by commercial opportunity or digital ephemera

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