The Ironic Ambiguity of Openness - Part Two
Attendees at the #OpenGovNI launch in November 2014.

The Ironic Ambiguity of Openness - Part Two

27 November 2014

In the second of our two-part blog on openness in Government, David McBurney looks at transparency and trust. 

Open government is primarily about transparency.

And looking a little closer, it seems there are at least 3 different reasons for transparency:

Transparency as Regulation: Transparency International is an organisation focused on preventing corruption, and in their view, transparent governmental procedures — open meetings, freedom of information laws, freedom of the press, disclosure of the financial status of officials, and others — will make corruption, bribery, and the like more difficult.

And there’s definitely something to what scientists call the Hawthorne effect - also referred to as the observer effect - whereby individuals improve or modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.

Transparency as Democracy: The second dimension of Transparency as Democracy is public control not for the purpose of facilitating better decisions, but instead as the embodiment of public control as an end in itself. Democracy, after all, is not about the people necessarily being right, but about the right of the people to be wrong. From this perspective, devices of disclosure and transparency are a useful facilitator of public decision making and an important component of democratic governance.

Transparency as knowledge: The Open-source community insists that the open availability of information will produce more knowledge and greater progress.

The more radical suggest that: sharing, not secrecy is the means by which we create wealth. This is the wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge: it’s a revolutionary wealth that can work for all of humanity. The claim is that ‘truth at any cost lowers all other costs’.

The open source ecology is made up of a wide range of opens – open farm technology, open source software, open hardware, open networks, open money, open small business technology, and open patents – to name just a few.

It’s about utilizing the 5 billion human brains that are the one infinite resource available to us going forward.

A Question of Trust

The problem is: some people don’t think that’s what governments have in mind when they talk about transparency and open government. And there are definitely some trust issues.

The revelations about NSA and GCHQ surveillance have certainly overshadowed discussion of government openness. Fairly or not, details of the secret surveillance of citizens stand in stark contrast to promises of more open accountability and undermine rhetoric about transparency.

Then there's the whole question of corporate secrecy and proposed changes to FOI rules. Public services have always moved from daylight into darkness when private managers take them over. But the cloak of secrecy may soon be draped over the public sector as well.

It could be argued that, rather than opening things up by disclosing information that the public needs to know – and once had a right to know, the coalition, with the collusion of illiberal judges, is shutting the British public up and closing it down.

This highlights the difference of opinion between media and governments regarding the "open" agenda. Journalists define themselves in opposition to government and see transparency as a means of identifying and curtailing corruption and poor performance. Governments see transparency as a way of encouraging better governance, and see the media as a way of promoting civic engagement.

David Cameron opened the Open Partnership summit with an announcement that the UK would crack down on hidden company ownership – a move widely celebrated by transparency, anti-corruption and tax justice campaigners.

Cameron also emphasised the importance of open government for economic growth and innovation. He contended that open governments were conducive to economic prosperity, whereas "closed governments breed poverty".

But the prime minister's speech is typical of a broader trend in open government discourse: one that moves the conversation away from concerns about political accountability and social justice and towards discussions about economic growth, digital innovation and supporting start-ups.

Cameron cannily steered the domestic transparency agenda to support its politics of austerity, encouraging citizens to join the hunt for government savings and "root out waste" – perhaps not a priority for local citizen groups fighting to protect front line public services.

Chancellor, George Osborne, is very keen, all of a sudden, to release data on welfare spending. But is this about openness and accountability, or is it more about political expediency? It’s not just drunks that use street lamps for support rather than illumination.

Senior US and UK officials tend to focus on a trinity of open governments, open societies, and open economies, as well as to the potential of digital technologies and digital information for innovative new businesses and growth.

But is this what open government is really about?

There's certainly a view that many governments pay only lip service to openness. There’s a suggestion on the Sunlight Foundation blog that the Open Government Partnership’sincentive structure to join the overall effort: “prioritises the easy questions over the hard ones".

The idea of open government once carried a "hard political edge", referring to "politically sensitive disclosures of government information" advocated by transparency and accountability campaigners. It is now increasingly applied to technologies for sharing information and politically neutral regimes of disclosure, which allow even the most draconian and regressive of governments to describe themselves as open.

So we’re back to the ironic, some might say convenient, ambiguity of openness.

We risk conflating technological and political openness, as though the accessibility and usability of information, software, standards, and the digital architecture of government were no different to the openness of official institutions and processes.

Governments are comfortable highlighting plans to "go digital", or to enable new businesses by opening up official data. They like the idea of open government as a tool for transforming inputs into the desired commercial outputs.

But transparency advocates may not be easily distracted from their mission to enable citizens to hold power to account. They will be more interested in how openness is used to improve the lives of citizens by reducing inequality and poverty, tackling corruption and injustice, improving access to education and healthcare and facing up to the effects of climate change.

And the political reality is that the kind of openness they are demanding from modern democracies has rarely developed through the good will of officials who hold power.

If knowledge is power, governments, even local government representatives, will not be keen to give up much of that power. They’ll need an incentive. And openness advocates will need a strategy.

Now, what would that look like?

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