Learning to love the inherent wonkiness of open government


In recent months, I’ve heard a recurring angst emerging from open government advocates around the world: why don’t “regular people” get excited by and rally around open government? This angst seems to have reached a boiling point recently following the release of a high-profile report suggesting that the civic tech movement (a subset of open government) would only truly “scale” if it embraced the tactics of a broad-based social movement. In parallel, a very public set of conversations have emerged around the struggles of Code for America’s local Brigades program, once the darling of many open government boosters.


Are we facing a crisis where the open government movement becomes completely detached from “regular people” and slowly fades into history as another elite policy fad? I don’t necessarily think so. Instead, I think we’re seeing a grudging recalibration of our collective expectations. To me, open government wasn’t and never will be a broad-based social movement. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important; we just need to channel its energy and possibilities in a more strategic direction in order to maximize its impact for citizens.


The growing angst


For me, the first introduction to this growing concern was at an Open Government Partnership (OGP) steering committee meeting in Mexico City, in the fall of 2015. There, seated around a large table in the offices of the Mexican presidency, government ministers and civil society leaders from around the world began reviewing strategic priorities for the Partnership’s upcoming year. I was taken aback when one government steering committee member began his/her intervention with a tirade lamenting the fact that OGP had far too few followers on Twitter. This, I questioned, was a strategic imperative? My response was, “Why are you surprised at all? This is a hyper-elite initiative we’re talking about!”


That exchange stuck with me. I heard it again, in different terms, two weeks ago at the White House’s Global Development Summit on a panel discussing the Obama administration’s legacy on open government and transparency. Rakesh Rajani, a former OGP steering committee member now at the Ford Foundation, made the case repeatedly that a primary strategic challenge facing OGP (and by extension, the open government movement) was its inability to connect with citizens. You can find similar refrains in the Omidyar Network-commissioned report from this June (What Can Civic Tech Learn from Social Movements?) and the ongoing public debate and hand-wringing over the growing pains and dashed expectations associated with Code for America’s high-profile Brigades program, which sought to spread the gospel of open government across the United States (so far with only mixed success, according to skeptics).


Movements /= better


My take on these emerging anxieties is relative sanguine, perhaps because I’ve long believed in a basic tenet associated with open government: it always was and will be a wonky, nerdy exercise, and I’m OK that my mother doesn’t have the faintest clue about it. Really.


Social change and policy reform can be delivered through all sorts of pathways. Sometimes they emerge from turning out tens of thousands of people on the streets or mobilizing massive constituencies via social media. Sometimes they emerge quietly, in the shadows and away from the spotlight, courtesy of the hard work of a small number of change agents, both in and outside of government. Here in the United States, little material change to the American criminal justice sector has emerged from the powerful Black Lives Matter movement in recent years (sadly), while comprehensive immigration reform remains stuck in the mud despite tens of millions of individuals being deeply impacted by and railing against current policies. Yet important policy reforms that affect large swaths of the population (such as improving federal information sharing to assist authorities in locating missing children) don’t appear in the morning headlines. Successfully catalyzing a social movement doesn’t correlate perfectly with actual social change, unfortunately.


Thus, rather than lurching awkwardly toward a mass movement approach, an alternative for open government supporters is to coalesce around the design principle that open government is a means to an end, a tactical transformation of how government operates in order to revolutionize the delivery of public services to citizens and deepen the social contract. “People” care about their jobs, their kids, and the safety of their neighborhoods. “Transparency,” “co-creation,” and “open data?” On average, they care a whole lot less, assuming they can even disambiguate the vernacular.


But that doesn’t mean open government is either unimportant or on an inevitable downward slide; it simply means we need to focus on getting the “last mile” of open government right (delivering improved services and trust in government through participation, transparency and accountability) rather than sweating the fact that ordinary citizens aren’t interested in concepts like machine-readable data. Geeking out over that stuff is not their job; it’s ours. So let’s stop worrying about the inherent wonkiness in open government; it will only be a problem if we fail to deliver improved services to citizens and increased trust in government. Focusing on the ends, not the means, is our best bet for avoiding the trap of open government elitism.


I fully agree on the awkwardness on recent adventures into the social movement world. Whilst I personally advocate for stronger attention on movement concepts in order to critically understand the dynamics in the open government field, this requires much more thoroughness. Generalizing calls for social movement approaches won't change anything.

Mainly though, I believe the field has to be very attentive to two aspects:
1) Make sure to not fall into the trap of same old rhetoric regarding participatory approaches without really living up to the standards. When we talk about participation in regards to actual democratic ideology .. which is ultimately underlying open government we are not speaking about more co-creation workshops but about fundamental political positioning and this needs to be addressed more prominently in my opinion.

2) Diving into open government practice and research is worrying to the extend that very little attention is on two of the three pillars it claims to address. Most open government efforts focus on transparency rather than actual participation and accountability, not even mentioning the inclusion aspect..

It is a choice, I guess to perceive the field as service delivery machinery or the opportunity to actually steer the ideological democratic foundation.