Centre for Internet & Society

Sunil Abraham is quoted. He said that open governance is more about citizens checking on what government leaders are doing than on government coding its citizens to exercise surveillance.

This post originally appeared on the Open Data Research Network and has been republished with permission from the author. For the republished post on OGP website, see here.

The plenary room of Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center was jam-packed at 845 in the morning, with representatives from different countries in the Asia-Pacific region and all over the globe joining the first regional conference on open data hosted by the Government of Indonesia.  The conference stage backdrop depicts a million colourful cranes moving in one direction towards the OGP logo, perhaps signalling an unprecedented wave of aspirations, commitments, plans, and actions towards a more ‘open’ governance within the region.  Then a few minutes later, President Yudhoyono arrived and the two-day gathering (6-7 May 2014) of roughly 500 people started.

The program was impressive. It tried to cater to the different voices of what ideally should make an open government community – government leaders, journalists, right-to-information activists, business representatives, academia, researchers, civil-society groups, funding agencies, programmers, among others. The over-arching theme of the conference “Unlocking Innovative Openness: Impetus to Greater Citizen Engagement” speaks to both the supply side and the demand side of open data where governments can make openness more innovative to which citizens can proactively engage. The people in attendance reflected this multi-dimensionality and the kind of discussions on open governance that happened in Day 1 reflects the several, differentiated, yet somehow united view and interests of the many people that were there.

The first day of the conference brings me to four main realisations, prompted by the excellent presentations of the speakers and the lively discussion at the break-out session that I attended.

  1. Openness is not an option but an imperative.  Aruna Roy, founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathanaof India, and considered one of the most influential thinkers of this decade put it more vividly using her organization’s slogan – “right to know, right to live”. While bureaucrats, like Minister Francis Maude of the UK argued that openness improve transparency, enhance public service, and stimulate growth, civil society groups claimed that openness is not something the government can do, but must do, to benefit right holders by ensuring that they are not only aware of what the government is doing but by ensuring that government leaders, to whom citizens entrust sovereignty, execute the will of the governed.

  2. Open governance is about relations, about people, not just about technology, transparency, or data provision.  Ms. Nwe Zin Win, of Myanmar National NGOs Network emphasized that as Myanmar moves towards Open Government Partnership (OGP) membership, the process should create a space for civil society groups to proactively participate.  In his remarks, Director General Yoon Soon-Gu of the Republic of Korea emphasized that when his government embarked on the process of crafting Gov 3.0 as a development agenda, with the end-goal of making Koreans live a happy life, citizen consultations were conducted all across government to ensure that this plan is responsive and relevant and reflects the people’s aspirations. Anne Jellema, CEO of World Wide Web Foundation highlighted the fact that open governance is not only good for vertical accountability (government-governed) but also about horizontal accountability (agencies within the same government) and ensures that systems are working with government – judiciary, legislative, audit, executing agencies – for the common good. Open governance then, is about building that relationship of trust between government and citizens, between business and government, and between agencies in the government.

  3. Open government has many challenges, but these are not insurmountable.  Malou Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism emphasized five “I”s in her plenary speech that she said are the main challenges to the open government story in the Philippines and in the region – implementation, inclusiveness, information, institutionalisation, and interconnectedness.  In the area of inclusiveness, one of the challenges is on how to ensure that people can participate in a context when there is a large digital divide, where internet penetration is low, and broadband speed is slow to a crawl.  Mr. Samadhi of the Government of Indonesia emphasized that there are many examples in his country where government information is translated to accessible formats by infomediaries  so that citizens without internet connection became aware, informed, and knowledgeable.  In one of the coffee breaks, Redempto Parafina of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific shared to me that non-government organizations, concerned individuals, and universities translate information in the CheckmySchool portal to information materials for distribution and use by communities without internet.

  4. Open governance narrative should focus on making governments more responsive and accountable.  President Yudhoyono uses Facebook and Twitter, apart from the traditional media as text and snail mail, to listen to the demands of his constituents. The Government of New Zealand, according to Minister Peter Dunne, sets goals on basic public services as health, education, and employment and demands regular public reporting on these goals; reports that can be accessed and challenged by the people to whom the services are intended. Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society argued that open governance should not veer away from this narrative. He made an example regarding India’s Unique Identification System, where the implementation is couched within the open data narrative. He believed that open governance is more about citizens checking on what government leaders are doing than on government coding its citizens to exercise surveillance.

It was a productive day. I am thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to attend the conference. One message that profoundly affected me was Aruna Roy’s exhortation at the end of her presentation – that we should make truth powerful, and that we should make power truthful.