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[BackChannel] Is Open Government Working?

BY Panthea Lee | Tuesday, March 26 2013

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Panthea Lee is a principal at Reboot, a social enterprise focused on issues of international development and governance.

"Open government" is supposed to be transformative. The typical narrative tells us that citizens with more information about how their governments function can better mobilize to hold public institutions to account.

An appealing narrative, yes, but do the tenets hold true?

Do open government initiatives make citizens more informed and engaged, and make governments more accountable to their people? In a nutshell: for all our visualizing, hacking, and democratically-minded merrymaking, what impact have open government initiatives had so far?

It's a difficult question to answer. Too often, defining and evaluating progress in open government confuses the means with the ends. Practitioners seem to focus more on the "open" (how many datasets have been released?) and less on the "government" (what impact has all this had on our processes of governance?).

Part of the problem is the woolly, shifting definition of "open government," which now seems to encompass any 'innovative' use of technology by the public sector. We need greater precision in our use of language. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials to account, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that fall under the open government umbrella?

The greater challenge is the inadequacy of evaluation frameworks to measure open government successes and explain failures. The broad aims of open government—citizen mobilization and institutional change—involve complex and interconnected causal chains. Traditional impact evaluations, however, are designed to assess linear, cause-and-effect processes.

Electoral participation or number of petitions tweeted may provide an indication of civic engagement, but hardly tell the whole story. Civic hackathons hosted or FOIA requests received may give some indication of intent, but are poor metrics for government accountability. Number of users, growth in users, and media mentions may provide a snapshot of popularity for an open government initiative, but do not explain long-term impact.

Suffice to say, mapping the knotty path toward the open government vision onto standard evaluation frameworks is difficult. Four questions might be worth considering for those working to measure and achieve impact in this space:

1. Who gains from open government?

Open government initiatives offer new, often technologically enabled avenues for civic participation. But which populations have the access and motivation to use these channels? Frequently, programs and platforms privilege certain groups over others.

An ethnographic study of participatory budgeting in Rome found that participation skewed towards those who were already active in civic affairs and in relative positions of power. Sixty-three percent of participants were activists. White-collar workers and those over 50 were also over-represented.

In New York City, by contrast, a recent study found that participatory budgeting engaged communities that had traditionally been uninspired by politics. Hispanic populations, for example, represented 39 percent of voters in district elections, but 50 percent of participatory budgeting voters. Twenty-two percent of participatory budgeting voters had a household income of less than $10,000, compared to 4 percent of voters in district elections.

Why did participatory budgeting in Rome reinforce elite or special interests, while in New York City it provided an avenue to address marginalization? What about the two contexts, the program designs, and their implementations led to these results?

2. How do we reach "the other side?"

There are two sides to the open government coin: citizens and governments. The goal is to facilitate constructive dialogue between the two, but many projects seem to focus on one side or the other.

Embedded in many demand-side open government initiatives is the assumption that governments newly motivated by citizens' demands will have the incentive and the capacity to respond. Embedded in many supply-side projects is the assumption that newly energized citizens will have the means and the desire to demand accountability from their government.

This is a government 2.0 fairytale. How then can open government initiatives realistically engage both citizens and governments to work toward better outcomes?

3. Can we do better than equating scale with success?

Replication and scale are not always appropriate indicators of success. The effectiveness of most open government initiatives will be context dependent. Replication requires programs to standardize as many elements of its models and activities as possible. There is a natural tension here.

Scale also does not say much about an initiative's impact. At nearly 13,000 deployments in four years, crowdmapping platform Ushahidi has indeed scaled. But 94 percent of crowdmaps had only one user and 93 percent had fewer than 10 reports.

How can practitioners use more nuanced metrics for impact and become as diligent about assessing risks and addressing unintended consequences as they are about looking for success stories?

4. How do open government processes change people?

Open government initiatives seek to mobilize citizens and to motivate governments to respond. But what are the processes through which change occurs?

At the citizen level, what are the psychosocial changes that stem from open government processes? That is, how do citizens view their relationship to government after participating in an open government program, and how do they express this change? What aspects of the experience influence this change in perception? Beyond the specific open government initiative, do people become more civically engaged, whether through voting, donating, volunteering, or otherwise acting for change?

Answering these questions may be a step toward developing a stronger sense of how to design effective open government initiatives and evaluate their impact. Understanding the motivations that can sustain citizen interest in democratic participation and the incentives that can push institutions toward greater accountability are crucial to realizing the transformative potential of open government.