Europe and Open Government - A Powerful Opportunity

Europe stands at a cusp of historic opportunities and challenges. The Old Continent is confronting unprecedented challenges of low citizen trust and rising populism. The unique structure of the European Union (EU) can turn any local fire into the next Europe-wide crisis. Yet, that same close-knit structure of Europe offers unprecedented opportunities for sharing burdens, cooperation and cross-fertilisation, both in the EU28 and beyond. Forthcoming elections for the leadership of the EU in spring of 2019 herald the opportunity to forge new directions for the future of Europe. In these new directions, open government approaches offer innovative solutions to rebuild trust and stem these challenges in Europe.   

Europe - A Time of Unprecedented Challenges

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that citizen trust in government – which was already at all-time low - has continued to plummet in many Western democracies - while China emerges as the most trusted government in the world.   This lack of trust extends far beyond the political landscape - the media, civil society and the judiciary face similar challenges.  The latest Eurobarometer survey shows that fewer than half of EU citizens trust the EU - and fewer still trust their national governments.  

This low trust reflects the major challenges Europe faces in the context of globalization, including rising inequality and stagnant wages, refugee crises and immigration, ageing populations and youth unemployment. As a result of these challenges, many people feel left behind or worse off. They fear for the future, and worry about their cultural identity.  At the same time, a growing group of citizens perceive democratic institutions to be captured by elites, who are disconnected from the needs of their constituents or complicit in schemes that benefit the powerful at the expense of the people they serve.

Anti-establishment movements in Europe have stoked this underlying distrust to call for the wholesale rejection of the system.  While voters in some countries kept radical forces out of office, in other countries populist and even authoritarian leaders have risen to power.  

The Open Government Opportunity for Europe

Where trust is the challenge, and people want more of a say in the decisions that shape their lives, open government is a key part of the answer. Open governments place citizens at the heart of their work.  They don’t treat citizens as passive recipients of services; rather, they make them an active part of what they do. They invite feedback, they consult, they deliberate - they co-create. In other words, open governments empower citizens to shape and oversee government so it responds to their needs - the fundamental bedrock for rebuilding trust. This is what the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is seeking to achieve through reforms being implemented by its membership of 96 national and local governments and thousands of civil society organizations.  

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, people.  EU First Vice-President Frans Timmermans put it beautifully at the OGP event hosted by President Macron at the UN General Assembly last September: governments must trust their citizens with information, with opportunities for decision-making, with real choices.  Trust, in other words, truly is a two-way street.

Across Europe, reformers from government and civil society have been implementing transformative reforms through OGP action plans that truly empower citizens to shape policies and services that affect their daily lives.  These can be scaled up across Europe to rebuild citizen trust.  For instance:

  • Participatory budget initiatives are allowing citizens to set priorities and fund projects that respond to their needs.  In Paris, confronting a history of unrest, Mayor Anne Hidalgo set aside five hundred million euros, including a special allocation for low-income neighborhoods. Citizens can propose and vote for projects to utilize the funds in both online and offline platforms in dedicated spaces in Paris. Similarly, in Madrid, the citizen engagement platform Decide Madrid allows citizens to petition their mayor and propose projects for the 100 million Euro participatory budgeting process. Over 70 governments are now using the platform Madrid developed to do the same. Portugal is the first country that took participatory budgeting to the national level, explicitly with the idea to bring people closer to politics.
  • Italy’s OpenCoesione project put the details of 1 million projects and 100 billion in EU funding - with projects ranging from small student loans to highway bridges - online in a very user-friendly way.  This created opportunities for citizens, journalists, and civil society to actively use the data. Additionally, school students were trained to be on-the-ground auditors, visiting project sites, asking question of local authorities and suggesting solutions, several of which are now implemented.  
  • In May 2012 in Estonia, following a wave of citizen protests in response to a major party finance scandal, citizens crowd-sourced, prioritized, and voted on key policy proposals to tackle the roots of the problem using online and offline voting through the Rahvakogu platform. This resulted in three citizen-led policies becoming law, including reforms on political party financing and a public petition system. The positive experience led to a more permanent approach with the Citizen Initiative Portal rahvaalgatus.ee.

The European Union and Open Government

The European Union has introduced a range of initiatives that specifically focus on transparency and participation, including the European Citizen Initiative, the Transparency Register, the public hearings of Commissioner candidates by the European Parliament and the publishing of mission letters. Some landmark Directives also go to the heart of what Open Government is all about, ranging from the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive to the recent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation. Europe-wide regulation that raises the bar globally on topics that are cross-border by definition.

Still, for many Europeans “Brussels” is not a passion. Or as U2 lead Bono once said: “Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling.”

The initiative of President Macron - former chair of OGP - to initiate Europe-wide consultations at scale with citizens is a laudable initiative that, if designed well, can not only create insight into what Europe’s future should look like, but can also mean a new normal for citizen consultation at scale. The choosing of the twelve key topics through a 27-nation citizen jury was an example that even face to face methods can work at European scale.

Beyond what can be achieved across Europe and in European Institutions, there is a crucial priority for Europe and the open government movement to join forces globally.  The EU is a natural partner of the open government movement with shared values and shared leadership: 22 of 28 EU members are part of OGP, as are most EU accession and neighborhood countries. The OGP leadership is also driven substantially by EU members. Globally, the EU is a champion and custodian of advancing good governance, protecting human rights and restoring citizen trust in government.   OGP, the EU and other key partners should join forces to serve as a countervailing force to the rise of authoritarianism and closed governments and a positive force for deepening democracy and openness.

Defining a European agenda: inspiring reform across Europe

An enhanced open government agenda for Europe - locally, nationally, at EU level and beyond - would aim to bring transformative open government ideas from local and national levels to the European level and the other way around. One of OGP’s core beliefs is that good ideas can come from anywhere. The way Europe is structured gives plenty of opportunities for replicating good ideas and synergies, where working together  gives more than the sum of the parts. The Anti-Money Laundering Directive mentioned above being a good case in point. OGP, as a hotbed of innovation around all things open and participatory, is keen to help. Some ideas:

  • Replicate OpenCoesione at European scale. Have an OpenCoesione in all recipient countries as well as an EU OpenCoesione. Bottom-up and top-down. Bringing full transparency and accountability - and opportunities for citizen monitoring and government responsiveness - to all European funds.
  • Introduce participatory budgeting at scale. Local governments can learn from Madrid and Paris, National governments from Portugal. A real innovation would be for the EU for the next budget cycle to bring elements of participatory budgeting to the EU Structural Funds, making a more direct connection with citizens’ lived realities.
  • Keep raising the bar on lobby transparency in Brussels - and inspire Member States to follow the leadership from the European Commission on this.
  • Building on the Macron’s idea of citizen consultations, the EU could show leadership by designing a cutting-edge genuine and permanent dialogue with its citizens. An honest, open, well designed conversation. For example, strengthen the European Citizen Initiative by looking carefully at the Estonian model.
  • Empower citizens with information on what Europe is doing for them and how it can improve. There are so many examples of how Europe delivers directly for its citizens, how it shapes, protects and changes their lived realities: no more roaming costs, more social safeguards, extra income, environmental protection and air quality, privacy safeguards to just name a few. There is an opportunity for strengthened two-way dialogue to share these, but also to solicit feedback for further improvement. And tempt national politicians to talk proudly about what ‘Brussels’ does by making the narrative so compelling they want to be part of it, rather than disassociate themselves.

Two weeks ago, we launched the Open Government Network for Europe together with Democratic Society.  By connecting practitioners and champions, this will facilitate the sharing of innovations, expertise and experience across local, national and EU levels, and move the needle on open government and effective citizen participation in ‘Brussels’, but more importantly across the region. Open government approaches that build on inclusive dialogue, citizen engagement and government responsiveness can bring exactly what Europe needs.

The unprecedented challenges in Europe and the broader geopolitical context create a powerful opportunity and imperative for Europe and the Open Government movement to forge a strengthened partnership to achieve shared goals - across Europe, in EU institutions and globally.  Open government can help rebuild citizen trust in long-established democratic nation states as well as across the continent, connecting the needs and expectation of the Europeans in the East and the West, the aspiring minorities and anxious majorities, those inside the borders of the EU28 and those just outside hoping to cross those borders.  The forthcoming elections for Europe hold the opportunity to pave an exciting future for Europe - one that is anchored firmly in the core foundations of open government in Europe and beyond.

The agenda above underscores that ‘Europe’ - at all levels of government - has a window of opportunity to start doing government differently and to truly embrace transparency, inclusion and responsiveness. Because open governments do not just tick boxes. They share, they listen, and they respond - and they capture hearts and minds along the way.  

Filed Under: OGP News