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SO — What is Open Government?

Mor Rubinstein |

This post was originally written in Hebrew and was published on the Public Knowledge Workshop (Hasadna) blog and on Medium.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Open Data and the Desert, in which I explained that there is no one precise definition of the term ‘Openness’. This week, I was thrilled to see that the Israeli government is organising a roundtable to examine the meaning of the term ‘Open Government’. This is a much needed step in the development of the new National Action Plan (NAP) for the Open Government Partnership, since there is no one clear, concise definition. There are, of course, guidelines and recommendations, but no one coherent perspective on open government and governance, and when working together on the topic, it is important to have the same working definition (and expectations) between the government administration and the citizens.

As you can imagine, I have been thinking about the question of what is open government for a while now. I believe that finally I have an answer. I wrote this post originally in Hebrew with Israel’s political history and context in mind, but I think some of these ideas, if not all, will resonate with people from other countries as well.

Let’s begin and start by clarifying some of our terms: Open Government is not the same as Open Source. The idea of open government is older than the practice of software development, and we must not to confuse the two. Also, we need to remember that technology is a tool that can promote open government, but it is not the main concept or motivator behind it. We also need to remember that open data is not a solution on its own. It is also not a technology. It is a resource, but I am jumping the gun a bit… so let’s start.

What is Open Government?

First and foremost, I believe openness is the ability to put ego aside and to hear other people’s opinions. It’s the idea of letting everyone have the feeling that they can speak their mind, and that their views or ideas will be considered. Openness is also about transparency, meaning that everyone should be able to understand why decisions were made without feeling attacked or ignored, so that decision makers and those affected by the decisions can maintain a level of trust in one another. Openness allows for anyone to take part in this incredible masterpiece that we call ‘democracy’ regardless of their abilities, where they were born, who are their parents, and whom they voted for in the last elections. Openness is letting everyone speak their mind and feel safe doing so.

And from here — What is necessary to achieve a truly open government in Israel?

  1. Every citizen should feel safe when they speak about the state. It also means allowing the media the freedom to cover the hot topics of the day in an honourable way, a way that demonstrates a minimum level of respect for one another. It’s the freedom to protest in public without fear.
  2. All branches of government should be able to receive feedback from the public. This feedback can be active and prompted by the government, as we are doing with the OGP co-creation process. It can also be initiated by anyone in the general population regarding the services they receive, but it needs to be followed up with a timely response. We need to check and measure the feedback provided to government, and also measure the response and impact. Good government service should lead to trust.
  3. Openness means that we know how and why decisions were made. It can be a decision in parliament, by the government administration, or by the courts. For that, we need government information, specifically in the areas of natural resources, law, environment, the economy, and the education system. We need to understand how the systems behind that information work. It means that this information needs to be accessible, and in some cases not only in Hebrew, but in any language that citizens understand in Israel — Arabic, English, or plain language (simple Hebrew and not legal Hebrew), because we all know that legal language is complicated!
  4. Openness encourages people to create and contribute to the administration of governments by writing code. The government should remove the barriers that do not allow citizens to participate in that way. An open government is a humble government, which understands that the ability of the government to be innovative is sometimes limited compared to the private sector and it should open its code to the public whenever it can (unless it is a threat to national security or privacy). it should be noted here that data.gov.il does not release its code to the public (look for the Github icon on the site, you wont fond one), despite the fact that it is a CKAN instance. This is a clear violation of the CKAN terms of use, and illustrates that the government of Israel still doesn’t understand what is open government when it comes to technology.
  5. In an open government, vendors can become providers quickly in the public procurement process, and there has to be clear and accessible information as to why a particular vendor was chosen over another. In Israel, this should always be the case with regard to IT and software where there are still barriers, and new actors find it hard to become vendors.
  6. Lastly, an open government is one where there is diversity and broad representation across the public service with regard to women, minorities, or marginalised groups.

These, I believe, are the main guidelines to achieve an open government in Israel, but I think other countries will find them relevant as well. These guidelines will not be implemented over night, and will require a lot of work, but having some clarity on what we are working toward will bring us closer to achieving our objectives. There are no easy wins here, only hard work, so let’s work together to make it happen.

This post was also open and received a lot feedback and suggestions from the members of the Public Knowledge Workshop — thank you for your efforts toward open government in Israel.