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Open government reformers warn of growing dangers to democracy

This post originally appeared on the Sunlight Foundation blog.

Democracy is at risk. Authoritarianism is rising. Populism is upending the political order. Spaces for civil society are closing. Those are the somber messages that arose again and again at the first day of the annual Open Government Partnership Summit, a global conference that convened thousands of activists and officials in Paris.

Where previous annual conferences have featured optimistic reflections upon the world and the arc of its politics on stage, with undercurrents of warnings from journalists and advocates about restrictions, surveillance and ongoing secrecy percolating through the rooms and halls and online discussions, the 2016 version had more overt – or as they say here in France, “ouvert,” for open – recognition of a change in political context.

As Americans and the world face uncertainty on many counts from an incoming Trump administration, U.S. leadership in the partnership remains in question, despite a strong showing from officials on stage and statements that offer no hint of doubt of commitment. President Barack Obama offered a final message to the partnership that his administration convened:

The rosy glow of transatlantic bonhomie between the United Kingdom and United States on opening data and strengthening governance to better use of technology remains in force, but it’s impossible to miss the unease and apprehension mixed in with the hopes, dreams and optimism of reformers dedicated to improving their societies.

To her credit, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power took this head on in her address to the conference:

[I]f you believe in the power of transparency, accountability and fundamental freedoms to improve citizens’ lives, it can be hard to feel optimistic lately. For 10 years in a row, according to Freedom House, political rights and civil liberties have declined around the world. Since 2012, more than 140 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly have been enacted or proposed in more than 65 countries.

And while in the past we may have been able to draw some comfort from the fact that a core group of countries continued to move toward greater openness, inclusivity, and respect for human rights, the last year has proven that even the progress of those stalwarts cannot be taken for granted.

In one liberal democracy after another, as we’ve heard from many speakers today, governments that worked with civil society to give their citizens a greater voice have been ushered out in many instances by some of the very people that they were seeking to empower. Instead of greater openness and accountability fostering increased trust in government, arguably, it has in certain places led to greater distrust. And rather than selecting leaders who embrace the core principles of OGP, people are increasingly turning to populists who promise to revert to an isolationist, top-down model of government – one that tends to view civil society as an adversary rather than an ally; and argues – in some places, at least – for retreating from the world and retreating from multilateral efforts like this one.

As with past decades, these forces will have to be met by men and women of goodwill working together to defend democratic norms and institutions. No one I’ve spoken to in Paris expressed hope that this will be easy, particularly with the lack of trust in government and media. Radical transparency activism that deprecates privacy norms and deep disruptions to the business models that have produced investigative journalism are creating new polarities around what is factual — and what is not. The effect upon the public sphere of fake news, propaganda and government secrecy has been to call into question public understanding of itself, a sort of distributed gaslighting whose effects are still emergent. When official statistics about weather, economics, the environment and violent crime can be questioned, the impact of open government data releases may be diluted, along with political support for funding them.

Ministers and advocates remain resolute in the face of this challenge, asserting that while open government cannot solve these challenges alone, it will be crucial to meeting them. The challenge for everyone involved in the Open Government Partnership and the billions of people who reside in participating countries will be to ensure that accountability follows transparency to make progress on rebuilding trust.

Paul Maasen, the civil society director of the Open Government Partnership, spoke to the challenges of populism and polarization at the conference, advocating for more civic engagement that bridges partisan divides.

“Participation and dialogue in government should be about citizens talking to citizens, together finding solutions to problems, especially in times like these when perspectives on what the right solution is are often far apart,” he said. “The conversation might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s the only way to build mutual trust and counter polarization. We have to get out of our bubble and engage.”

If we are to combat the economic and political forces that tilt democracies towards oligarchy, kleptocracy or even kakistocracy, politicians and officials will need to abandon rhetorical pieties and speak to the realities of our historic moment, from the impact of automation, outsourcing and globalization on employment today, to corruption (whether legalized or brazenly illegal), to environmental degradation and social inequality.

Power recommended three approaches for countries participating in OGP in her remarks, all of which are worth adopting:

  1. Do better not only at meeting national commitments, but ensuring that they improve the lives of people.
  2. Show, don’t tell, the benefits of open government, with respect to fighting societal scourges like corruption.
  3. Partner with civil society groups and governments trying to open governments.

To expand the conversation beyond the echo chamber of openness, politicians and advocates will also need to shed jargon about co-creation and crowdsourcing and beneficial ownership registers to clearly convey what is meant. The public can and does play a role in improving services, programs and regulations when I offered an opportunity to participate from the beginning. Prizes and challenges that engage the public in helping to suggest ideas and approaches to solving problems work. A public database that enables the public to see who owns which companies is worth building in every country.

On all of these counts, it’s critical that reformers and politicians remember that plain language is fundamental to open government. When people cannot understand what is being proposed, transparency fails because of lack of accessibility. When people cannot see the benefit or concrete impact of access to information or governance reforms, it provides cover for restriction and regression.

If governments of, by and for the people are not seen to be working in that public’s interest, democracies around the world may face tipping points in the year to come.

The risk of inaction, tolerating sclerotic government and continued secrecy is clear: If the public loses more confidence in the ability of its politicians and governments to meet its needs, mitigate corruption and navigate the next great challenges of our young century, other systems of government will be on the table.

The 20th century is a wasteland of bad ideas, from communism to fascism to totalitarianism, that were only defeated at great cost to our grandparents. It’s our generation’s role to ensure that representative democracy is defended today.

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