I am currently in Brasilia at a truly remarkable event–the inaugural meeting of the Open Government Partnership. It is remarkable for a number of reasons–the role and significance of Civil Society in the Partnership and particularly the acknowledgement by governments of that role and significance; the quite uninhibited idealism being expressed by those participating and again particularly and surprisingly by governments in the opportunities for enhanced democracy, transparency and accountability that the OGP represents and that the new technologies are perceived to enable; and overall the sense of new beginnings that hark back to those early meetings of idealists and dreamers and post-60′s revolutionaries that accompanied the very early days when the rules and practices of the Internet were not yet fixed and the billions of dollars in value had not yet been created (and appropriated).
And I don’t mean to cavil or be a nay-sayer, I too am being carried away by the passion and optimism of the speaker from Yemen talking about how Openness will help to transform his country, by Hillary Clinton talking about renewed democracy and the ideals of Abraham Lincoln; by Minister Clement of the Harper Government of Canada talking positively about the role of Civil Society in Open(ing) Canadian governance; but, but…
There is a dirty little secret that everyone knows but no one is willing to talk about, certainly not at this event. The secret is that alongside the rise of the Internet and the empowerment of the Internet generation has emerged the greatest inequalities of wealth and privilege that any of the increasingly Internet enabled economies/societies have experienced at least since the great Depression and perhaps since the beginnings of systematic economic record keeping. The association between the rise of inequality and the rise of the Internet has not yet been explained and it may simply be a coincidence but somehow I’m doubtful and we await a newer generation of rather more critical and less dewy-eyed economists to give us the models and explanations for this co-evolution.
But in the context of the Open Government Partnership and the 60 or so countries that have already committed themselves to this or are in the process I’m not sure that the world can afford to wait to see whether this correlation is direct, indirect or spurious especially if we can recognize that in the world of OGP, the currency of accumulation and concentration is not raw economic wealth but rather raw political power.
The danger thus is that in the same way as there appears to be an association between the rise of the Internet and increasing concentrations of wealth one might anticipate that the rise of Internet enabled structures of government might be associated with the increasing concentration of political power in fewer and fewer hands and particularly the hands of those most adept at manipulating the artifacts and symbols of the new Internet age.
Thus I am struck by the fact that while the OGP over and over talks about the importance and value and need for Open Government there is no similar or even partial call for Inclusive Government. I’ve argued elsewhere how “Open”, in the absence of attention being paid to ensuring that the pre-conditions for the broadest base of participation will almost inevitably lead to the empowerment of the powerful. What I fear with the OGP is that by not paying even a modicum of attention to the issue of inclusion or inclusive development and participation that all of the idealism and energy that is displayed today in Brasilia is being directed towards the creation of the Governance equivalents of the Internet billionaires whatever that might look like.
Certainly there is enormous value in Openness and Transparency in attacking corruption in Less Developed Countries. However, if those countries need to wait for the availability of widespread digitization and Internetization of their public administrations and citizenry before they are able to effectively respond to corruption I fear that they will be waiting a very long time indeed. In practice, OG data is about — as I’ve said earlier — two worlds. There is the world of fancy apps and the world of dusty records and there is rather too much in the current hype around OGP in blurring the fundamental distinctions between the two. There is I fear an assimilation of the very real concerns and opportunities in transparency as a means to attack corruption to the commercial drives and strategies for organizational and individual empowerment that may (and I do say may since there is rather too much that we don’t really understand) underlie much of the former concern with open data and shiny tools for smartphones.
I don’t really have any idea (for example) what crowd sourced public policy looks like but I fear that no one else does either and a too rapid rush into this as a fundamental structure for democratic participation may not in fact have a totally happy ending. So while I do have considerable hopes and expectations for the OGP I’m also concerned that it may be in part motivated by a too rapid rejection of the longer and more tedious road of reforming our existing democratic structures for reasons and with objectives that may not always be completely transparent even to those who are most obviously committed.