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An Open Government Approach to Rebuilding Citizen Trust

Sanjay Pradhan
CEO, Open Government Partnership

Recent political events sweeping democratic strongholds around the world reflect a deep loss of faith in government. Citizens perceive their institutions to be captured by elites who are disconnected from the needs of their constituents or complicit in schemes that benefit the powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens.

In this publication, we asked contributors to reflect on the multifaceted and complex sources of distrust. At the same time, we at the Open Government Partnership have had a front row seat to learn from and work with courageous and inspirational reformers who have compelling solutions to build citizen trust in government. As a result of their efforts, previously opaque institutions are making themselves more transparent and accessible to citizens. Public officials are reaching out, listening to citizens and meaningfully responding to their needs. Reformers in governments and civil society are working together to combat elite capture and grand corruption, and create a government that truly serves and empowers its citizens.

These trends—emerging within and outside the 75 countries and 15 subnational governments that are part of the Open Government Partnership—represent a countervailing force to the rising tide of distrust in government. Together they constitute six pillars of a growing open government movement that is redefining civic engagement beyond the ballot box by empowering citizens in policymaking and service delivery, and putting them at the heart of government.

Arming Citizens with Meaningful Information: Transparency is a critical first step in rebuilding trust. But information made transparent must be genuinely useful to and usable by citizens. In Uruguay the government’s A Tu Servicio portal publishes vital healthcare information enabling citizens to take control of their healthcare choices by helping them track healthcare costs, compare providers, and view treatment wait times online. Brazil’s transparency portal is proactively publishing public spending data, allowing citizens to track how their government is spending taxpayer money, report cases of official misconduct and request specific information on spending. In Sri Lanka, a youth-led civil society organization is using the Right to Information Act to help hundreds of displaced families track disappeared loved ones following the civil war.

Empowering Citizen Voice in Policymaking: Putting citizens at the heart of policymaking gives them the opportunity to shape legislation and policies in areas that they care about most. In Estonia, citizens crowd-sourced, prioritized and voted on key policy proposals through online and offline voting on the Rahvakogu platform, which ultimately resulted in reforms on political party financing and a public petition system. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has reached out directly through 140+ federal consultations to give Canadians a voice beyond elections and understand their concerns. In Madrid, city residents use the Decide Madrid platform to set budget priorities for a €100 million budget, suggest projects and monitor their progress. Conflict-ridden South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo allowed citizens to vote on budget allocations using mobile phones. When citizens saw roads and schools being repaired that they voted for, tax collection jumped 16-fold, a clear measure of the increased trust in government resulting from open, participatory approaches.

Reaching Out to Marginalized Citizens: With populism on the rise and minorities facing growing oppression, inclusion of the most vulnerable in public dialogue and policy priorities is essential to win their trust. To address the social and economic inequity that disproportionately impacts the City of Austin’s low-income citizens and communities of color, the city is actively gathering public feedback on its equity assessment tool, which will be used to establish city-wide equity standards tied to local budgets. In Costa Rica, language barriers, geographic seclusion and structural exclusion from decision-making have made indigenous Costa Ricans the most underrepresented and underserved groups. In response, reformers from government and civil society institutionalized a dialogue between government and indigenous populations, which helped overcome distrust, settle land disputes that had spurred violent conflict, deepen engagement with nearly 20 government institutions, and usher investments in education, medicine and water services. Côte d’Ivoire has committed to train five subnational governments in participatory budgeting practices, to empower women’s groups in determining budget priorities based on the local community’s needs.

Empowering Citizens to Follow the Money: Enabling citizens to monitor government spending and report the misuse of public funds helps build confidence in public institutions by demonstrating that tax money is being spent wisely. For example, in Georgia, citizens use the Budget Monitor platform, which was collaboratively developed by the State Audit Office and civil society, to visualize how public funds are spent online, report cases of corruption, and identify which government agencies they would like to see audited. Following major corruption scandals from padded contracts, government and civil society reformers in Ukraine collaboratively launched ProZorro, an online platform to disclose all procurement contracts and make them publicly searchable. Open contracting reforms have allowed citizens to track contracts, flag potential violations, and helped save $700 million in two years by levelling the playing field for competitive bidding of contracts. In Italy the OpenCoesione project published the details of 1 million projects and €100 billion in EU funding through a searchable archive online. Empowered by this information, a group of young Italians discovered that funds for their local youth center were blocked because of collusion with organized crime. Using the media to expose corruption, they are advocating for the construction of a new center.

Responding to Citizen Needs: Transparency and participation are not silver bullets. Beyond feeling heard, citizens need to feel that government is responsive to their voice. Lack of responsiveness may in fact exacerbate citizens’ skepticism and distrust in government. Closing the feedback loop requires that citizens monitor government activities, provide feedback and expect government response. For example, in the Philippines, an estimated 30-50 percent of local infrastructure spending is lost from leakages. In response, the government launched an Open Roads initiative, disclosing public spending on roads that were geo-coded locally. The state Commission of Audit mobilized citizen audits to track waste and fraud, requiring government to respond, saving up to $300,000 per ghost road. In Mongolia, citizens are being trained to rate the quality of public services using a community scorecard tool. The government, in turn, is required to respond to gaps in service delivery with citizens reporting back on the government’s response. So far, 84 public services have been checked, improving trash collection, expanding access to water, and improving quality of school services.

Enlisting Citizens in the Fight Against Grand Corruption & Elite Capture: Elite capture and grand corruption fuel citizen distrust and apathy, reinforcing the corrosive perception that government doesn’t work for the people. In response to scandals in which big business and interest groups influenced government and electoral processes, Chile’s lobbying reforms seek to curb influence-peddling through a public lobbying register, which discloses meetings and donations between authorities and lobbyists. In Georgia, the country’s supreme audit institution started publishing searchable political party financing data which is now being used by anti-corruption watchdogs to track whether donors and political parties are illicitly benefitting from government contracts.

These are inspirational examples of countries empowering citizens and rebuilding citizen trust using open government approaches. They demonstrate that governments can solve problems with their citizens and credibly respond to their core concerns, including of the poorest and most marginalized. Yet, these inspirational innovations are too few and far between. The challenge before us is to scale these transformative reforms across countries. We need reformers from government, civil society, private sector and other groups to forge coalitions to empower ordinary citizens in the exercise and oversight of governance, break the cycle of distrust, and ensure governments truly serve their citizens, rather than serving themselves.

Open Government Partnership