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Open Government – A Citizen’s Perspective

A Government Open to the People, for the People, by the People

This blog is adapted from remarks made by OGP CEO Sanjay Pradhan at the OpenON event in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on March 26th, 2018.

Let me begin with a story – a story on what open government can deliver for ordinary citizens.

In 2001, one of the biggest public inquiries in the United Kingdom’s history – the Bristol Babies Scandal – found that the mortality rates of babies undergoing heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary were double that of elsewhere, and that the lives of over 170 babies would have been saved during the 1990s had they been operated upon elsewhere.  The inquiry found a lax approach to safety, secrecy about doctors’ performance, an old boys’ club culture among doctors, and a lack of monitoring by management.

Following the inquiry, heart surgeons started publishing data on mortality rates from heart surgeries for individual surgeons so people could make informed choices for their babies.  Subsequent evaluations found that the death rates of those undergoing heart operations dropped dramatically – by as much as thirty-three percent for aortic valve replacement surgery.

This example shows how open government can directly impact ordinary citizens – in this case, literally saving lives.  But it is equally important to underscore that open government is much more than open data. Even China and Russia are beginning to selectively share state information with the public. But open government requires more than just data.  It requires enabling citizens to freely speak, associate, and assemble, empowering them to participate and shape public policies and services they care about, and also enlisting them to monitor and oversee government. This is what the Open Government Partnership (OGP) was created to achieve – to open governments to citizens; to ensure, in the words of former President Obama (one of the founders of OGP), that government truly serves its citizens rather than serving itself. And the mechanism for achieving this goal is through a partnership between reformers in government and civil society who together co-create commitments in action plans to make governments open, participatory and responsive to citizens.

Through these co-creation processes and action plans, there are five ways in which citizens are being empowered to shape, prioritize, or monitor government policies and services.

The first frontier – empowering citizens with information they can use.   Through its first OGP action plan, Ontario required government data to be open by default, and has released massive amounts of government data – 2336 datasets – to the public. The exciting frontier here is opening data in areas of high-demand for citizens. Ontario’s open data has disclosed healthcare provider information that has helped social enterprises such as iamsick.ca to create tools to allow citizens to have better access to health care.

  • Elsewhere, in Uruguay, citizens confronted difficult challenges in making informed choices about their family’s health because they did not have good information about healthcare providers, and yet, were locked into their healthcare provider for 3 years. As part of Uruguay’s OGP commitment, reformers in government and civil society created a platform, A Tu Servicio, that publishes vital healthcare information, enabling citizens to track healthcare costs, compare providers, and view treatment wait times online in order to make more informed decisions about their family’s health.

  • In the city of Skopje, Macedonia, the release of open data on air pollution raised awareness about the extent of the problem. A young IT student, Gorian Jovanovski, launched the app Moj Vozduh (My Air) using government data on air pollution. This mobilized civic activism and reached 62% of the population under age 55. Two factories have been shut down for not abiding by climate regulations, and municipalities are taking measures to reduce emissions during peak periods of pollution.

  • In Georgia, countless citizens have no idea what happened to family members under Soviet rule. Grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and brothers disappeared in Stalinist purges. Opening up previously secretive Soviet-era archives allowed citizens to search what happened to their loved ones who were killed in the Soviet era, and brought a sense of closure to thousands of families who finally found out the fate of their loved ones.

The second frontier – rate public services. Beyond simply receiving meaningful information, citizens are being empowered to provide feedback on key public services, on which governments are taking corrective actions to close the feedback loop.

  • In La Libertad, Peru, citizens were developing infections and diseases from lack of clean water and sanitation. As part of the region’s OGP action plan, government and civil society developed a digital mapping platform that visually pinpoints the precise location of water services throughout the region and scores them for quality. Citizens can now verify their water quality – is it safe for my child to drink? – and post complaints for the government to respond to and take action to resolve.

  • In the UK, the Friends and Family Test (FFT) is a feedback tool that asks people if they would recommend the medical services they have used. The FFT has produced around 25 million pieces of feedback so far – and the total rises by over a million a month – making it one of the biggest sources of patient opinion in the world. The results of the FFT are published every month, so ordinary citizens can make informed choices about their healthcare.

  • In Mongolia, citizens were having trouble getting services delivered – in some districts, their garbage wouldn’t be carted away; in others, their water pipes would freeze during Mongolia’s long, cold winters. Through Mongolia’s CheckMyServices initiative, citizens filled out community scorecards to report on those service gaps, which government responds to, improving water and sanitation.

The third frontier – shape policies that you care about.  Beyond providing feedback on downstream delivery of services, citizens are shaping policies that impact their lives.

  • 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; in Madrid, only Facebook has more online users than the Decide Madrid Portal. The participatory budgeting initiative of the South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo enabled citizens to vote for road and school repairs – which they then saw fulfilled. Tax collection jumped 16-fold, a clear measure of the increased trust in government.

  • 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.

  • Beyond voting on policy priorities, deliberative participation in OGP countries, such as Open Dialogues in the Canadian Federal Government or the UK’s Bexit Citizen Assembl, are enabling citizens to engage in deeper dialogues on complex policies that affect them, debate tradeoffs, make compromises, and use facts to shape decisions.  

The fourth frontier – open government for all, including the voices of those traditionally excluded: women, indigenous communities, the young and the elderly.

  • Advancing Gender Equality.  Reformers have also started to use the OGP platform to make commitments to empower and improve the lives of women.  Sierra Leone has committed through OGP to disclose data on gender-based violence. Cote d’Ivoire has committed to empowering women’s groups in participatory budgeting. At the local level, Buenos Aires has used OGP to commit to a publicly accessible database to assist young women who face difficulty accessing reproductive health services, with a reporting mechanism on quality of services.  Since incoming OGP Co-Chairs, Canadian Government and Nathaniel Heller, have made inclusion and gender equality a central priority, there is great opportunity to advance transformative gender commitments.

  • Reaching Out to the Most Vulnerable.  Through a key OGP commitment, the City of Austin in the United States has developed a homelessness systems map, which identifies pain points by crowdsourcing information from the homeless, service providers, and the affected community, giving the homeless and affected communities a voice so the city can provide better quality services. In Costa Rica, the OGP process institutionalized a dialogue between indigenous populations and government.  This helped overcome distrust, settle land disputes, deepen engagement with nearly twenty government institutions, and usher investments in education, medicine, and water services. In Germany’s first OGP action plan, the federal government launched a competition to encourage, reward, and disseminate local activities to integrate immigrants, who otherwise would be voiceless.

  • Finland is systematically involving the young, elderly and vulnerable groups in policy making. In Norway’s capital, Oslo, children are lending their voices to make streets safer for pedestrians. Developed with and for children, the Traffic Agent app allows children and their parents to report safety issues as they walk or bike to and from school, on which the government takes immediate corrective actions. Tunisia has used OGP to engage with youth groups to listen to and respond to their pain points. This can also mitigate the risk of their radicalization, which is fueled by exclusion and grievances.

The fifth frontier – follow public money and monitor corruption.  OGP reformers are also enabling citizens to monitor government spending, corruption and influence peddling.

  • In Georgia, against the backdrop of a history of state corruption and impunity, citizens can now use the Budget Monitor platform to visualize how public funds are spent online, report cases of corruption, and identify which government agencies they would like to see audited.  In Italy, the Monithon website allows ordinary citizens to monitor  one million projects and one hundred billion Euro in European Union funding. School students have been trained to be on-the-ground auditors, visiting project sites, asking questions of local authorities, and making suggestions for implementation. For instance, a group of young Italians used this platform to accelerate progress in setting up a youth center which was blocked because of collusion with organized crime.

  • Amidst scandals and tales of multi-million dollar kickbacks on government contracts in Ukraine,  a group of young people created the ProZorro platform to make each and every step of the public procurement process transparent and open for monitoring by anyone. This has allowed citizens to track all government contracts and flag violations themselves – resulting in savings of over $1 billion over two years.   Open contracting is now emerging as a norm in OGP, having been embraced by twenty-four national and four local governments.

  • In Chile, in response to scandals of influence peddling and state capture by big business and interest groups, a public lobbying register allows citizens to track elected officials’ meetings with and donations from lobbyists, and request meetings with public officials, thereby democratizing access to senior leaders.  In Georgia, following the publication of political party finances by supreme audit institution, citizen groups can track whether donors to political parties are benefiting from government contracts.

The Power of Citizen Engagement

These all constitute new approaches by which citizens are asserting power beyond the ballot box – new ways in which the traditional relationship between state and citizens is being redefined. This is what open government can deliver for citizens. But for this to become a reality, it is equally vital what citizens can deliver to open up governments – the role that you, I, all of us can play as citizens. This civic engagement and activism lies at the very heart of OGP.

We have seen the power of citizen movements – when people get together, there is collective power to drive change and overcome vested interests. Just a few days ago, over eight hundred marches took place around the world as part of the Never Again movement against gun violence. I attended the march in Washington, DC, and was deeply moved not only by the massive turnout, but by the authenticity and strength of the young people determined to drive change. There are millions of women changing norms of inappropriate behavior through #MeToo and #TimesUp; millions who supported their family, friends and neighbors to win LGBTQ rights. These movements are built on a history of citizen actions: the Civil Rights movement, the Arab Spring, Tiananmen Square, and the list goes on.

This civic movement is equally vital in the campaign to open up government, so citizens demand to open up budgets and contracts, so they ask to shape key policies and services that affect them.  Even if the issues that citizens most care about do not appear to ostensibly focus on “open government” – whether it be gender equality or access to health care, we have seen from the examples above that open government approaches that empower citizens with information and voice can be part of the solution and part of that campaign.  While open government alone cannot fix citizens’ key problems, these problems cannot be solved without open government.

It is therefore vital that citizens come together to propose, advocate, and demand change through the OGP co-creation process.  And this is even more potent in OGP, where there are reformers in government on the other side of the table, also striving to improve governance for citizens.  The beauty and power of OGP is that it combines the passion of civic activists with the integrity of reformers in government.

We need this collaborative, collective effort today more than ever.  The hard reality is that open government has never been under as much threat as today.  Democracy is under attack in many parts of the world; civic freedoms are being restricted in over 100 countries; authoritarianism is on the rise; and trust in government is at a historic low. This deep distrust has fueled an alarming rise in populism, with populist leaders calling for a wholesale rejection of the system. Combined with rising authoritarianism, all this is threatening the very foundations of democracy.

Open government can be  an antidote and countervailing force to these disturbing trends, because courageous reformers are implementing transformative reforms to rebuild trust.  But to be a credible countervailing force, we need stronger coalitions of reformers from all levels of government, civil society, parliament, and the private sector, joined together and propelled by civic activism, to scale up transformative reforms that empower citizens, that deliver on that precious old promise of “a government for the people, of the people, by the people” – a government that truly empowers and serves its citizens.

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