Open government is human government
Rakesh Rajani, Twaweza
Remarks made on behalf of civil society members at the launch of the Open Government Partnership
New York, September 20, 2011
President Obama, President Rousseff,
Your excellencies, fellow civil society members,
Ladies and gentlemen:
In a world marked by so much turmoil, we need open government to build trust and to revitalize the social compact between states and citizens. Openness can bring governments and citizens together, cultivate shared understandings, and help solve our practical problems.
It starts with sharing information.
Norway’s enormous oil wealth is managed as a public asset, whose revenues are transparent to all. Openness will be the key to turning natural resource wealth from a curse to a blessing for many millions.
In Mexico, when the civil society group Fundar showed that health services were not reaching women, clinics were not open and medicines meant to be free were anything but, the Ministry of Health made concrete reforms to save lives.
Across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Uwezo – a citizen led survey of almost 200,000 households – has demonstrated that children still lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, despite being in school, despite billions of dollars of investments. These findings are now helping governments and citizens improve learning outcomes in education.
The US government’s data.gov site not only makes 300,000 datasets public, it invites users to design applications to mash data, see patterns and create new knowledge it could have never done on its own. In London and in New York, Nairobi and Haiti, platforms such as Ushahidi, FixMyStreet and 311 are enabling citizens to get city councils to fix potholes and broken street lights, and to track health stockouts and relief supplies.
Still, to be meaningful to citizens, information needs to be accessible locally. In India, MKSS has democratized access to spending data by painting it on over 100,000 community walls in the state of Rajasthan alone. Ordinary citizens audit public records to verify whether salary registers are real or fake, and whether reported infrastructure actually exists. In the state of Andhra Pradesh citizen audits have uncovered fraud and theft of over $25 million, of which a fifth has already been recovered. Citizen involvement has proven so useful that the Controller and Auditor General has called for social audits to be conducted across India.
As important as dollars saved are, the true power of open government may be its effect on the public imagination. When citizens monitor what’s going on, make comparisons and act, they gain a sense of purpose and control; a sense not only that things happen to us, but that we can make things happen; a poignant affirmation that we are part of the narrative of history.
In fact, citizens are making change happen, everyday, at an unprecedented scale and pace. The recent events of the North African Spring attest to this. Elsewhere too people are agitating for dignity and livelihood, from the ‘walks to work’ in Uganda to the hunger fasts to stop corruption in India, from the rappers satirizing for-life presidents in Senegal to the protestors outside my Wall Street hotel room, demanding jobs.
Open communication also heightens aspirations. No longer are people willing to bear it, remain silent in the face of humiliations, and indefinitely defer dreams. Ideas travel, we see how others live and make a difference, we wonder ‘if they can do it, why can’t we?,’ we learn lessons, we make meaning, we craft tools, we organize, we act.
For governments that wish to maintain established order, these developments are worrying. But they cannot be wished away, and in fact provide a powerful opportunity.
For open government is the most apt response to the democratic human impulse to be involved, to count, to matter. Excluding people breeds resentment and suspicion and anger. In contrast creating open societies, where citizens can freely access and share data and ideas, and choose their leaders and hold them accountable, creates a sense of belonging and gives people a stake in public affairs. Openness makes it easier to engender trust, legitimacy and responsibility, and harder to be cynical.
Take the constitutions of South Africa and Kenya. Among the greatest such documents in the world, born out of contexts of violence and deep inequities, they were forged through struggle and exhaustive, open public engagement. Today, despite persistent tensions, the constitutions are helping create fairer societies, upholding the best part of our ideals, and guarding against our baser instincts.
The course of human progress is never straightforward. But the human spirit is such – with our curiosity to know, our impulse to speak out, our tenacity to get things done, and our deep rooted desire for freedom and dignity – that in the end we will settle for nothing less than open government.