Winning back trust through open government

Governments the world over are struggling with the extent of the global surveillance revelations and the deep shock this has left everyone in. The level of trust in government has declined to new lows. How can citizens trust their governments if they can no longer rely on them for the protection of their basic civil rights, if their communications are monitored by foreign and their own intelligence services, in addition to all other economic, social and political problems that are haunting countries around the globe due to the financial crisis? Is open government one possible strategy for governments to win back some trust? I think so.

Open government is not a panacea, and certainly not a remedy for the damage to civil rights and the foundations of democracy that surveillance has inflicted. However, I do see the opening up of governments as part of a return to the right track. Open government is a perfectly acceptable way for governments to do good by their citizens in the digital age. Show your citizens how you spend their money, be accountable to what you promised, illustrate what you delivered, allow insight into how decisions are made and what information they are based on - and trust will increase. This is not an argument for white-washing by publishing low level datasets to score points among the digital natives, by all means. However, in pragmatic terms, I do think that every government should consider opening up as a viable path to rebuild lasting trust with its citizens. Open government is not a project with a fixed start and end, it is a process. An honest attempt by administrations to reach out and engage in dialogue would also be met by honest responses. Opening up is a more sustainable method than any sort of public relations strategy. It is important to keep this in mind, it isn’t merely about publishing datasets or providing e-government interfaces, this is a political  concept, one that requires strategy, will, direction and leadership.

There are precious little other options that I would take seriously. Declassification of documents, more liberal freedom of information policies, proactive publication, live streaming of hearings, all this can go a long way in signalling seriousness. In the short term, opening up will no doubt hurt. More information will open another flank in the ongoing struggles between the secrecy of the national security states and those democratic elements mostly represented by investigative journalists and the organized civil society. This storm will pass, and once due consequences have been taken, the dust will settle and make way for governments being able to refocus on delivering public value, in cooperation with its citizens.

There is a fine line between pragmatism and naiveté, but I am interested in discussing openness as a realistic strategy and would like to convince any public official of this path as a viable approach. Governments not part of the OGP now face a choice: join it against all odds and make it work to their and their citizens’ benefit, or turn away from it forever, weakening not just the partnership but the idea of open government as a whole.

Sebastian Haselbeck is managing director of the Internet and Society Collaboratory in Berlin and a member of the German Open Government Partnership working group, a civil society campaign pro Germany’s membership in the OGP.