Whose business is open government?


Amongst the projects I am working on at the moment is one for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, helping them to update their Guide to Opening Government.

There are lots of different definitions of open government, but a good  working definition is that;

  • The public understands the workings of their government (‘transparency’)
  • The public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance (‘accountability’).
  • The public can influence the workings of their government and society by engaging with policy processes and service delivery programs (‘participation’).

There is a lot of buzz around the idea of open government, in part driven by the potential unleashed by digital technology. As bureaucracies have shifted from being run on paper, to being run on bytes of information, the practical potential for transparency and openness has exploded. It has become possible to cheaply and simply share information and data, and to involve more people in feedback, consultations and collaboration.  Industries from software to retailing, and from travel to media are being disintermediated and reinvented – why not the business of government?

But open government goes beyond the brave new world of government data portals, and civic hackers. At the heart of the open government agenda is the idea that acting with transparency and accountability can enable public institutions to make better decisions, solve problems more effectively and deliver on their missions. In many ways it is a rebranding of a more long-standing call for good governance and protection of human rights.

Within the broad justification for openness there are several distinct areas of concern which are driving pressure for change;

  • The first relates to the corrosive effect of corruption, and the potential for transparency and bottom-up accountability to enhance the integrity of public institutions by allowing people to ‘follow the money’ and call to account corrupt politicians, officials and businesses.
  • The second challenge relates to the inefficiency created by bureaucratic silos and the tendency to hoard rather than to share information within industrial-age institutions. The ability to collect, share and analyse data has the potential to break down some of the barriers to collaboration and coordination within and between departments of government.
  • The third relates to the need for new, and radically more efficient ways to manage systems for the 21st century. Our systems for transport, pensions, energy, healthcare, education and so on were developed for the industrial age, not the information one. Developed countries are struggling to deliver against the high expectations, while in many developing countries even basic services remain out of reach. Solving these problems demands not just incremental improvements to efficiency, but radical transformation.

All of this ought to be of interest to those concerned with the sustainable business agenda– which is also about economic transformation, integrity, responsiveness and innovation, and is a response to the same recognition that ambitious collaboration is needed to tackle the complex and entrenched problems that societies face.

But it is awfully quiet at the intersection.  Discussions about open government rarely seem to involve business, and the potential for open government innovation is not much visible in the discussions on how to address corruption, realise human rights and build sustainable cities at the UN Global Compact and the other mega-partnerships on corporate accountability and sustainability.

Open Government has its own global mega partnership, the Open Government Partnership involving around 60 governments together with civil society representatives. Each country develops their own  action plan, making commitments to address one of five ‘grand challenges; Improving Public Services, Increasing Public Integrity,  More Effectively Managing Public Resource,  Creating Safer Communities and  Increasing Corporate Accountability. According to Global Integrity, out of the 800+ commitments made by governments so far, only 19 related to the corporate accountability grand challenge.

Maybe it is a generational thing, with the corporate responsibility movement stuck in an analogue approach to transparency and collaboration.  Maybe it is a consequence of business cautiousness of getting involved in civil society dominated agendas, or of civil society distrust of business. Certainly there is no point calling for more people to go to more conferences just for the sake of it, but it seems odd that the private sector, and talk of the private sector,  is so absent in this discussion of how to reinvent major social institutions and civic systems.

Remaining tied to old industrial systems is not a long-term winning strategy. And forward thinking companies are increasingly investing not only in technology shifts, but in partnerships that offer the potential for shaping systemic change. The Open Government Partnership is a posse assembling to create for a race to the top for more transparent, accountable and innovative government. It is an agenda which progressive business should champion and contribute to.

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