Port Jervis, believe it or not, because of recent events is closer to being an example of open government in action.
Transparency sounds good in theory, but in action, it’s even better.
Civil society needs transparency in order to be free of corruption and serve the needs of the public, and there’s more than one public, more than one audience. We’re all individuals, and in 2018, we all can have a say.
Communication is key and diplomacy is key to peace.
To accompany my August 20 article, “How to Have a Say in PJ,” the following is my selected notes from the Brookings Institution’s aggregation of research, “The Impact of Open Government.”
Hope that you find this as educational as I did, and, with any luck, more useful.
Identifying the principals is, in general, easier when the open government initiative is intended to make conditions more visible, rather than processes more transparent. ‘Visible condition’ interventions reveal the outcomes of government action, and the major principals tend to be comparatively obvious. The release of school test results might be primarily directed at parents. An interactive website for reporting local potholes is intended for drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. The principals are less obvious when it comes to transparent processes, which reveal not the outcomes of policy but the mechanisms by which government decisions are made. Who will attend the newly public town council meetings? Who will submit a Freedom of Information request and pursue legal remedies if it is denied?
In Vietnam, increasing the visibility of legislators’ behavior did not embolden them to more forthrightly represent their constituents’ interests. Instead, transparency discouraged these legislators from activities that give the appearance of opposing the regime. In a host of contexts, transparent processes can lead to more domination by entrenched interests.
This is not to suggest that increasing the transparency of government processes always empowers those with a stake in the status quo. But an examination of the literature on public meetings reveals some of the challenges in turning transparent processes into broad-based participation. In numerous contexts, carefully constructed public meeting initiatives have not only provided civic space for the disadbantaged, but have even disproportionately represented the poor — an achievement that can help offset inequalities of representation in other venues. Decisions as simple as the timing and location of meetings can include or exclude the disenfranchised.
When efforts are made to ensure that poor people people have access to transparency processes, there is clear evidence that these open government initiatives can be used to improve their access to public goods.
Another challenge in turning transparency into broad participation is a tendency to self-selection among those who participate, even among social and economic equals. It is not just the powerful, but the interested, who tend to participate in politics.
Tramsparent processes need not be just another access point for the already powerful or the highly motivated. But open government proponents must design transparent procedures that take into account who is likely to be in a position to respond to the information made available by transparency, and to offset the existing inequalities of power and engagement. The following items on the rubric will help ensure that open government information reaches its intended principals, and that those principals are in a position to absorb and respond to the information.
For data to be useful, it needs to be accessible and publicized. Nominally transparent data can often be incomprehensible. To pick one extreme example: while information about farm subsidies in the United States was technically available to the public, it took six years of effort by a public interest watchdog group to actually process the data into a useable form. In addition, accessible data requires publicity, usually via an active and independent media.
Accessibility alone is not enough; information must be publicized for people to respond to it.A consistent finding across many studies is the value of an active and free press in reducing misuse of government funds and holding elected officials to account.
Open government proponents must ensure tat their interventions actually reach their intended audience. Accessibility concerns confront both top-down and bottom-up approaches to open government. Open data projects should be adaptable for use not only by individuals but by media, academics, and civil society organizations. They should also be amenable to aggregation to the level of official accountability. Those considering direct monitoring as an approach to transparency should ensure that the information in question is truly accessible to the monitors. In addition, there is a critical role for a free and active press in reporting open government information.
Open government initiatives have often been designed based on the assumption that information alone would move people to action.
The key in each of [the cases mentioned in the document was] that resipients of the open government information could respond meaningfully to the information they were given because they had real alternatives to choose between, and a societal space in which they were free to make those choices.
In other cases, however, individual-level solutions may not be enough. In that event, open government programs need the support of either local service providers or officials to be effective.Thus the long-term effectiveness of an open government intervention often hangs on the relationship between the citizen principals and their government agents.
A comparison of two efforts to reduce absenteeism among civil servants in India demonstrates the importance of supportive officials to the success of open government initiatives.
Transparency can sometimes distort agents’ incentives, encouraging them to put on a good show rather than actually improve performance. Transparency can also interact with representatives’ tendency to ‘blame avoidance,’ and result in unintended and negative consequences. These perverse effects can come in at least three forms.
- ATTENTION TO PROCESSES OVER OUTCOMES
- STRATEGIC “IMPROVEMENT”
The research … shows the importance of principals having the power to act on the information made available by open government, whether individually or with the help of supportive agents.
It is a truism of democracy that the willingness of officials to support reform is not indepemdemt of the mobilization of informed citizens. Represemtatives respond not only to active political campaigns, but also attempt to anticipate the threat of potential activism. And yet, even where there are robust mechanisms of democracy, one letter of complaint is unlikely to change bureaucratic policy. A single voter has little chance of altering the outcome of even the fairest election. And, of course, in far too many less free political contexts, an individual seeking information about or expressing discontent with government faces not merely apathy but harassment, intimidation, and even violence. For citizens to shape the preferences of their representatives, they often have to work together. Here, of course, individuals encounter the problem of collective action: it is only worth participating if enough others do for the project to succeed. The collective action problem can be overcome, but only under certain conditions:
- CONDITION 1: POLITICAL AGENCY. An individual needs to believe that he or she can and should participate in the political sphere.
- CONDITION 2: QUORUM. An individual needs to have confidence that enough others will also participate tp have an impact. This assurance is particularly important when participants face a risk of punishment.
- CONDITION 3: GROUP EFFICACY. An individual must believe that if the group acts, meaningful change will occur.
Several research teams have tested one approach to increasing citizens’ sense of agency: simply informing citizens of their nominal points of authority over local public service providers. A number of these campaigns have shown some success in increasing engagement and improving public services.
Simple as it sounds, being told of one’s rights and one’s points of authority can increase the extent to which people exert their power.
The quorum and group efficacy conditions are central to collective action analyses, but have rarely been rigorously assessed in the context of transparency/accountability initiatives. Collective action research suggests that trust between individuals, and therefore existing institutions that build and maintain that trust, play a crucial role in overcoming the collective action problem. There is also evidence that adopting all-or-nothing tactics, such as boycotts or nonviolent resistance, in which a single free-rider is understood to substantially damage or undermine the likelihood of success, can be effective in discouraging defection.
One context that often meets all three of these conditions is a competitive election, and there is a substantial body of research on the interaction between open government and elections. In a number of instances, voter guides based on open government data have educated and engaged voters and changed electoral outcomes.
A voter guide in Mozambique, combined with an SMS campaign, was also shown to increase turnout.
Interestingly, competitive elections can also have an impact on the behavior of unelected public servants.
Open government interventions that have been successful in other contexts have failed when powerful interests have successfully hijacked the processes by which open government information reaches the public or by which citizens can seek answers from their representatives.
When a representative sample of Ugandan voters were given the opportunity to text message their representatives, a ‘greater share of marginalized populations’ participated in this campaign than more traditional forms of politicial communication — even when the cost of sending a text message was not subsidized.
Participatory budgeting has been shown to engage the poor and other often disenfranchised groups, and improve service delivery.
In sum, there is clear evidence that open government initiatives thrive when recipients of new information about government have access to channels of influence, such as competitive elections and robust grassroots organizations.
Where these avenues do not yet exist, there is some suggestive evidence that channels of influence can be built within an open government framework.