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Europe and Open Government – A Powerful Opportunity

Paul Maassen |

The European election of 2019 is said to be a watershed moment that will ask voters to choose between more or less Europe, between inclusion and diversity or exclusion and nationalism, and between societies that are more open or more closed.

These are false dichotomies. The right question to ask is how Europeans can get a Europe that delivers better. For all. At European, national, and local level – and beyond.

We are well aware of what Europe needs to deliver on. The 2018 Eurobarometer lists migration, jobs, terrorism, and climate change as people’s biggest concerns. The 2019 Edelman survey demonstrates that trust in institutions – media, government, and civil society – is still very low across the continent, although people trust the EU more than their national governments. Many people either feel left behind, worse off, or both. They fear for the future and worry about their cultural identity. And they perceive democratic institutions to be captured by elites whose actions benefit the powerful at the expense of the people they should be serving.

For these reasons, this election demands a reflection on the choices before us. Governments, businesses, civil society, and media alike are struggling to make sense of how they got here and where to go next. They are looking to understand how they can deliver whilst rebuilding trust and fostering healthy democracies along the way.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is publishing this thought-provoking collection of essays to breathe new life into this debate. The essays are written by a diversity of European voices from all Member States, including leading decision-makers, civil society activists, journalists, academics, and youth leaders, among others.

Three leading ideas for strengthening Europe in years to come emerge from the essays:

  • Better quality dialogue and participation on issues people care about –  The authors ask ‘Europe’ to address the big topics of our time: migration (Alrefai), climate (Charlier), digital rights and governance (Bär; Campolargo; Tsiavos; Verdier). They call for institutions based on transparency and participation (Georgieva; Lederer; Rurka). Several also want to see more dialogue and participation from the top down (Seliga; Golubeva) and to build a democratic Europe from the bottom up (Saiz; Kalinauskiene). In short, replace a ‘Brussels’ technocratic governance approach with a people-centred one.
  • Smarter use of technology, combined with ‘European-style’ regulation –  Not surprisingly, four of the political pieces focus on the broader challenges of the digital age (Bär; Verdier; Ollongren; Jourova). They advocate working with and regulating tech companies, ultimately shaping a digital era that works for citizens and protects societies from manipulation.
  • More collaboration and leadership inside the EU and across the globe – Some see room for more European collaboration on cross-border challenges, such as fighting financial crime (Caruana Galizia) or money, misinformation, and politics (Ollongren). Two-thirds of Europeans worry about false information and fake news being used negatively. Several essays ask for Europe to lead by example, to inspire and provide support to democracy outside Europe (Alrefai, Kalkku, Vidacak).

Without exception, the authors urge Europe to be brave and take the lead in defining the future (Brar; Bosse). All ideas combined sketch a way forward for reimagining and re-energising democracy beyond the ballot box.

Globally, the EU stands tall as a champion and custodian of good governance. Recent ‘Better Regulation’ initiatives have delivered unprecedented openness and transparency, creating ample opportunities for those who want to engage. Other landmark initiatives include the Transparency Register, the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive, the recent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, and the Whistleblower Protection rules.

These results count. However, to really change the European narrative from one of elites and ivory towers to one of people and opportunities, we need leaders who dare to dream bigger. For too long now, ‘Brussels’ has been facing calls from citizens who want more of a say in the decisions that actually shape their lives; citizens who want governments that make them an active part of what they do –  governments that invite feedback, consult, deliberate, and co-create.

This is exactly what open government is about. And it is happening. Across Europe, reformers from government and civil society are embracing inspiring approaches that empower citizens to shape the policies and services that affect their daily lives.

OGP, for example, is already shaping inspiring innovations around the ideas captured in this collection of essays along the lines of:

  • Better dialogue and participation –  Estonia and Croatia have delivered platforms for citizens to influence policy-making. Italy has shaped opportunities for citizens to monitor and report on the billions of euros spent within the country through EU funding programmes. Germany has created an innovative competition programme to strengthen the integration of migrants.
  • Smart tech the European way – France and the Netherlands are working to increase transparency of algorithms used by governments to make decisions and allocate resources.
  • Leadership and collaboration –  The UK, Slovakia, and several other countries are collaborating around the introduction of beneficial ownership registries which tackle financial crime. Paris and Madrid have introduced participatory budgeting programmes which give their citizens a direct say in how their city budgets are spent, while Madrid has shared its platform with 100 other governments across the globe.

These are not technical fixes, and open governments cannot be built by bureaucrats alone. At the heart of it all sits a commitment to change the culture of government, the DNA of decision-making. When EU First Vice-President Frans Timmermans spoke at an OGP event in late 2017, he emphasised give-and-take – the importance of recognising that trust is a two-way street. A government that truly wants to place citizens at the heart of its work can only do so by trusting them – with information, with opportunities for decision-making, with real choices (Pehk, OpenTeamGov).

And this is where the real opportunity for Europe lies. Political leaders should focus on building consensus rather than breeding conflict. They should steer us away from polarisation. Their focus should not be on how we are different, but on what we have in common (Krier). Where we do disagree, our leaders should create opportunities for dialogue and let the diversity of perspectives make our solutions stronger. In other words, we need a politics of dialogue, not of crowd-pleasing slogans.

Sharing space does not always come naturally to those in power. Trust is difficult to gain, and easy to lose. If Europe is looking to build a healthy democracy, it cannot however cut corners.  It has to invest.

From what OGP has learned over the years, the following immediate and important opportunities for Europe emerge.

  • Better dialogue and participation – The EU should select a handful of policy areas that are alive in the hearts and minds of European citizens today (e.g. the climate crisis; job security; education) and open these up to honest, meaningful, and responsive dialogue across the continent. The outgoing European Commission has put in place a strong foundation of transparent and evidence-based policy-making. The incoming one must build on that by infusing it with richer and deeper participation and through improved responsiveness. The skeleton is there –  it is time to invest in the muscle and soul of the EU’s citizen engagement agenda.
  • Smart tech the European way – It is imperative to make technology work for people, and not the other way around.  The EU should be unapologetic in learning from and adapting the inspiring innovations that OGP has helped pioneer. Why not experiment with tech-facilitated participatory budgeting for the regional funds or citizen monitoring of EU spending? There is without doubt an opportunity to team up with digital leaders to define digital governance ‘the European way’.
  • Leadership and collaboration –  The EU must continue to raise the bar on frontier issues such as lobby transparency, financial crime, data privacy, and whistleblower protection. Recent developments in these areas are praiseworthy, but there is room for improvement and there are loopholes to be closed. EU institutions must continue to work with, and listen closely to, citizens and civil society groups who have been championing these issues from the very beginning. Ambitious results are within Europe’s grasp, and European norms have the potential to grow into global ones. It is this type of leadership that is needed to keep democracy healthy.

There is a golden opportunity to connect with citizens on how the EU delivers for them –  how it shapes, protects, and changes their lived realities. No more roaming costs, increased social safeguards, extra income, better environmental protection and air quality, and more privacy safeguards, to name but a few. The EU reticence to communicate loudly and proudly for actions taken and impacts achieved is doing it a disservice (Brar).

These approaches demand a real change in mindset, a genuine commitment from the highest to the lowest levels of government to ‘do government differently’ –  not just for, but with the people. Such an investment will help build a Europe that delivers better.

Open government can help rebuild citizen trust across the continent, connecting the needs and expectations of Europeans in the East and the West, of aspiring minorities and anxious majorities, of those inside the EU and those just outside. The 2019 elections and ensuing years present Europe with a powerful opportunity to pave an exciting future –  one that is anchored firmly in the core foundations of open government.

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