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Learning from Indian-Style Open Government (Updated)

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 8 2010

President Obama, in India this week, and Prime Minister Manmoham Singh have teamed up on a new "US-India Partnership on Open Government," blogs the White House's Samantha Power. And it's a partnership, writes Power, where India has much to teach about using technology in "fighting corruption, holding government officials accountable, and empowering citizens to be the change they seek." More Power:

Part of what Indian civil society groups have discovered is the importance of using personal stories and publicizing factual data in order to mobilize democratic demand.  President Obama spoke with Janagraaha, a group that created the website where Indians upload videos of their experiences in paying a bribe, in refusing to pay a bribe, and in "not having to pay a bribe" -- where Indian public servants provide services that citizens wish to celebrate. The website has received 120,000 hits in two and a half months. He also met with Arghyam, which holds public gatherings in rural India to test local drinking water. By ensuring that citizens are present to witness the water tests (the tests turns yellow for dirty water, purple for clean), the group is able to build bottom-up and intense pressure for clean water and hold local officials accountable if the water quality does not improve...

India is at the vanguard of figuring out how to exploit technology and innovation on behalf of democratic accountability. U.S.-based groups, as well as those throughout the developed and developing world, could learn an enormous amount from these efforts. And India may well become a kind of "city on the hill" that other countries look to for lessons on not only how to pull millions of people out of poverty, but also on how to strengthen democratic accountability.

The considerable trials of Indian life can put the potential power of these democracy-enhancing technologies in sharp relief. If this "partnership" even just amounts to case-study sharing between the two countries, and maybe an unconference at some point, it could be a rather fascinating exchange where the U.S. might really learn a thing or two.

And more: The White House is out with a new fact sheet (pdf) that lays out details on the India-U.S. partnership, framed there-in as an on-going "Open Government Dialogue." In India, the effort will be led by Sam Pitroda, Innovation Advisor to the Prime Minister. And in the U.S, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra will be the point person.

And still more: Now we've got a joint statement from Obama and Singh, striking in how it frames the United States as a junior partner in the open government partnership. It noticeably credits the progress India has made in using technology to empower democratic engagement while striking a decidely more aspirational tone when it comes to the Obama adminstration's work in the open government field: "This will build on India’s impressive achievements in this area in recent years and the commitments [link] that the President made to advance an open government agenda at the United Nations General Assembly."