Open Source and Open Government - The challenges ahead

A bit more than a decade ago I worked at the Dutch development organization Hivos. This was at the time of the World Summits on the Information Society. Hivos was – and is - promoting the smart use of technology for civil society advocacy in developing countries. Promoting open source was part of the strategy, both from a practical and a principled perspective. One of my early advocacy successes was partnering with Dutch parliamentarians to pass a resolution asking government to switch to open source software for central government ICT projects.

The government for the larger part ignored the resolution. The last couple of years The Netherlands has seen a string of failed government ICT projects. A recent report by a parliamentary committee concludes that government agencies do not have the knowledge to make the right choices, nor the in-house capacity to manage large ICT projects and are often taken for a ride by big companies. I am sure this sounds familiar.

The challenge in 2014 is even bigger than in 2004. We are not just talking about smart use of technology to improve government processes and service delivery, but about governments that see technology as part of the solution for opening up the process of policy making and being accountable to citizens. We are talking about opening up government by being more transparent, more accountable, more participatory and using technology to help facilitate it.

And that’s where open source, open data and open government meet.

OGP in a way is a response to two global trends gaining traction at the same time but moving in opposite directions. On the one hand there is a positive trend of open government momentum – or general openness momentum. One with more access to information facilitated by open data initiatives and new and better laws, more participation both online and offline, and a surge of global standards. And then there is the negative trend where citizen’s trust in government is decreasing, where civic space is declining and democratic institutions are challenged. Technology facilitates both of these trends.

Open source is very much about the same principles as open government. The code is transparent so that others can look at it, improve it, use it. By being so transparent - and tracking the changes made - coders are also accountable to the broader community on what they have done. Coding is done in a participatory way to improve the product. Bringing in more people will also allow you to tackle the bigger challenges and stimulate learning. 100% match on principles between open government and open source.

So what about the practice? Let me give three concrete examples where open government, open source and open data meet.

  1. Mysociety.org from the UK make websites and tools that empower citizens in the UK and around the world. They work for communities with the aim to open up democracies and getting things concretely changed. Sounds lofty. One of their killer apps is very down to earth though: fix my street. People use the website to report potholes, broken streetlights, and other problems in their local area, local government repairs it. Helps both government and citizens.
  2. Open Institute in Kenya recruited data fellows, people that really understand datasets or can visualize them, and placed them with civil society organisations to build better advocacy strategies – and with media houses to help journalists build stories.
  3. Code for America and spin-offs like Code for Africa engages the tech community to build, test and use open source applications for and with local government. Applications and code are put on Github for others to use. By linking fellows in government they solve concrete problems around access to social services, create new avenues for public input and – perhaps most important – improve the understanding of government on technology, which hopefully will help them make better choices down the line.

OGP was designed as a big tent or a big platform. That’s a design choice because reforming societies is a tough challenge and to do so you will need as many reformers as you can get. It is not just about the number of reformers or issues covered though. To get reforms on a larger scale, we need to connect the issues with reformers, i.e. we need to break down the silo’s. We need to connect better not just at the level of principles but at the level of practice.

If we can work together as a global open community we can improve and enrich the data, build advocacy and start ups on top of it, share the content through visualization, use the laws where data sets or proactive policies cannot get the information needed, have data specialists help journalists in understanding this wealth in information. Et cetera

For open government to succeed we need the open source community as part of the OGP platform. You are essential in making sure that the potential of tech and social media are used in the smartest way to improve governance and enhance open government. Ten years from now I hope these ICT audit reports will tell a different story. One where technology has helped government to be more efficient, more effective but also helped to truly open up society and make a real difference in the life of citizens. The ambition of OGP is to restore trust, to create new civic space and reinvigorate democracies. That is the challenge ahead that I hope you will be part of.

This is a shortened version of the keynote Paul Maassen gave at the Open World Forum in Paris on October 30 2014

Photo credit: Flickr, Author: Hausstaubmilbe ( slow)

Authors: Paul Maassen