The last year has been marked by a global rise of populist political projects, carrying nationalist aspirations of closed borders and ultimately revealing the deep mistrust of political elites and traditional government institutions. Globally, electoral defeats of liberal parties have brought to light the often overlooked social discontent that led to citizens rejecting traditional decision making elites.
2016 will also be remembered as the year of failed referendums. After Brexit, Italy’s referendum on constitutional change is the latest illustration populism’s seemingly unstoppable rise across the western world. By offering citizens a brutal ‘yes or no’ choice, without a true invitation to weigh in policies and build alternative choices for Europe, political elites have lost to demagogues and emotions. As a former parliamentary assistant in the British House of Commons, I have been nurtured by British parliamentary culture. Yet, this reduction of democracy to an ultimatum sadly reminded me of the worst hours of Bonapartism.
In order to renew a deeply distended link between citizens and their political decision-maker, governments must strive for innovation.
The Open Government Partnership summit that was held in Paris this week offered to adress this challenge by providing a forum for governments to embrace open data and open government. Created by Barack Obama in 2008 to promote open-data, transparency of public action and citizen participation in public policy in an open world, the partnership is an informal association of 70 states.
During this 2016 summit, we especially discussed the recently unanimously adopted digital law in France, paving the way for creating an open and transparent government.
As the minister for digital Affairs in France, I have chosen to co-build this law with French citizens, using an online consultation platform. Tens of thousands citizens were able to respond to our proposals, give their opinion and propose substantial changes. The law now includes progressive data policies that simplify the access of all to any public information available online using open data, and ensure data transparency when automated administrative decisions are made using algorithms (for benefits or taxes calculations, for example). Through a consistent dialogue, we were also able to extend openness to areas of concerns for citizens of the digital area. As an example, a provision was included in the law to protect white-hat hackers, who detect and reveal flaws in information systems security can be protected from possible criminal prosecution.
The generalization of open data policies is an essential first step, but it is not enough. Other projects must urgently be launched, such as the generalization of the use of free software by public administrations, to reduce the independence and sovereignty of our public information systems, or to create a protective legal framework for all data in the public domain.
Although technical, these provisions reflect a real strategy for our government to start embracing open data and open governance. In the global data economy, a self-contained state runs the risk of an inevitable weakening while getting increasingly dependent on information ecosystems controlled by technology corporate giants. We must remain very attentive to the protection of privacy.
Of course, the key to sustainable success is to work beyond strict national framework. Such is the mission of bilateral initiatives such as the Franco-British data task force on the data economy, which aims to develop a common strategy between our two countries for the valorization of our information ecosystems. This is also the objective of the European strategy on the data economy. But we must even seek a far more global approach on this issue. In the same way as the climate emergency, the democratic urgency calls for a global and concerted response.
Recovering and deepening democracy will require strengthening the institutions that give voice to the people. We have a formidable opportunity to use digital tools to change the relationship between people and governments, to ensure that throughout their mandate people and citizens really remain in close contact, to involve all those who feel disenfranchised, and, actually to make better policies, as always based on people’s collective intelligence. Beyond the simple sharing of best practices, the OGP alliance offers the opportunity to create a groundbreaking international coalition work to create a new Bretton Woods of international governance and digital democracy.