Moving Forward Open Government: A Uruguayan experience
Last December 2012, I had the pleasure to chair in my academic capacity and as a member of DATA a round table about open government in Uruguay where government officials, civil society advocates, international organizations, developers and researchers discussed what do we mean, in Uruguay at least, by Open Government(1). Some answers can be found in this report (in Spanish), but in this post I would like to share 5 key points which I thought emerged from the workshop. To some degree they could be of use for others working on open government around the world:
1) OGP is a broad church: Open Government works as an umbrella for several initiatives, from access to information, civic participation, technology and accountability. As a result there seems to be a sense of chaos. Creative chaos is, nonetheless, a good thing. Some of these initiatives have been in place for a long time, and synergies through OGP could enhance good outcomes mostly in civic and institutional innovations. Indeed OGP is helping to move the agenda forward.
2) Frustration is a common issue: Most of the people around the table would share frustration about how several transparency government related policies work. It is interesting to note, that frustration goes well beyond the classical divide state/civil society in key issues, particularly around release of public information and participation.
3) Technology has the power to disrupt traditional ways of doing things in the public sector. The challenges yet, are often not technological but legal, institutional, and social notably around the release of open data, and the uses everyone could make of it. There is a nascent community in Uruguay working with open data, and civic issues, for example using public information to build an foi request website http://www.quesabes.uy and also some private ventures using open data. Everyone agreed that in order to be inclusive open data related policies should benefit more people, something that in Uruguay could be possible through the OLPC network available, but inclusion is indeed a big worry. Open Data is a tool for human development
4) Thorny issues are thorny issues: The OGP can help to advance some of them in place and potentially illuminate some misunderstandings about others. As a result some countries could join a “race to the top”, increasing transparency, accountability and participation. But there is a limit, and as a result an “agree to disagree”. It is crucial to understand where this line is, to move the dialogue forward.
5) The road ahead needs more clarity : As civil society and government start to get a grip on how to move forward about OGP, it is crucial to set up a clear framework in terms of plans and how to review them. Also civil society and government should have a clear set of expectations about what the OGP process will deliver, and what will not deliver.
The format of a round table is a good exercise and if time and resources are available I encourage it, as it allows people to exchange views in free and frank ways, and usually focus in constructive dialogue even around difficult issues. But bear in mind that in some cases you are debating about transforming fundamentals of politics and public administration, crucially around accountability an effort as Jonathan Fox(2) mentions, tends to be cumulative and sometimes long term.
So far OGP has opened up a set of interesting debates that did not have a proper forum in Uruguay, and the mingling of several agendas can indeed spark civic innovation and healthy debates. OGP has also made everyone on the table aware that with in order to succeed in setting up open governments, new governance arrangements will need to emerge, which by default should be more participatory and decentralised, which are indeed important political changes. And as you find thorns in the rosy world of open government, the important thing is to keep gardening.
The round table was organised by Data Uruguay, an Uruguayan NGOworking on Open Data and transparency (which I co-founded with my colleagues), with the support of Google and the British Embassy, in the context of a follow up of the event developing Latin America
Fox Jonathan (2007) Accountability and voice in rural Mexico, Oxford University Press