Enabling people to be informed and active consumers is critical to developing a participative, critical and competent citizenship.
Since its inception the Open Government Partnership has viewed empowering consumers as a core concern. Two of the five OGP grand challenges involve citizens in their role as consumers; in relation to public services providers, and the corporate sector.
Yet consumer empowerment and consumer protection have rarely featured in countries’ OGP Action Plans to date, which have tended to concentrate on the supply side of accountability and government data. Open government actions to get citizens involved in policy debates, scrutinising government budgets and or using government data remain removed from most people’s day-to-day experience of government; as consumers of public services, and as individuals going about their business.
Consumers International the ‘global voice for consumers’ with over 240 Member organisations in 120 countries, has made a contribution to bringing consumer issues more strongly into the open government agenda, by developing a new chapter on Consumer Protection for the Open Government Guide.
Its recommendations range from the initial foundations of developing a basic consumer protection law, to more advanced development of institutions to enable consumers to get redress when they have been harmed, misled or exploited. They highlight in particular the development of low-cost, quick and easy to access dispute resolution mechanisms in India, Malaysia and Argentina.
They also highlight how governments are taking innovative steps to grapple with the challenges thrown up by the huge amounts of personal data that businesses now collect about their customers. While privacy concerns are paramount (and are the subject of a forthcoming chapter of The Guide), governments are also experimenting with systems to give people access to their own information, such as the UK’s Midata project. Giving people greater access to electronic records of their credit rating, or their past buying and spending habits can help them make better buying choices.
Macedonia and Colombia are two countries that have addressed consumer protection in their Action Plans, while many other countries are seeking to improve the performance and accountability of public services. Civil society open data initiatives such as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on Open Product Data, and the Open Food Facts project are experimenting with approaches to make product information more transparent. Consumers organisations, and government consumer rights ministries can play a valuable role as part of the national processes for developing and implementing Open Government Action Plans, bringing ‘open government’ closer to the everyday experience of citizens.
Photo credit: Flick. Author: Andy Katsaitis