Open Government, Open Knowledge
Open data systems are the only way of governance in the future. While Julian Assange caused a diplomatic incident by publicizing diplomatic cables sent by American embassies, there was a big furor. But instead of being illegal, perhaps his act was the first pioneering act to show a future in which all communications done between states will be transparently available to the public through an open data system, of which his rather juvenile project is the precursor.
For many reasons, communication between states are kept secret and are not available to the citizens who pay the taxes of the government and who are entitled to know what their public representatives are talking and discussing with other states. But in the old model of diplomacy, all of this was a heavily guarded secret. But can we afford to do this in a globalizing and quickly interconnected world in which 7 billion people must co-operate closely if the human species is to survive global warming, water shortages, unemployment, and a changing economy?
Can the same level of competitive secrecy which fueled the power of European states over Asia and Africa really be the model for the 21st century, in which a giant population unevenly accesses market forces and capitalism, disposable consumer goods and transnational corporate products? How can transnational corporations hope to sell their goods to every person on earth, on the one hand, and yet have states still maintain these hierarchies of inequality in which richer Northern countries try to grab the natural resources like petroleum, minerals, and raw materials, on the other?
The only way to move forward in this new century is to keep the flow of information between states as transparent as possible. This flow of information about both domestic and international policies, legislations and agreements must also be completely open on the Internet so that citizens can keep updated of all the changes that are occurring. Since legal changes are often made in small places, in Parliament involving a limited number of political representatives, or in law courts, often the ordinary citizen is unaware what is happening. In order to broaden this sphere of participation, there should be “Open Government” projects on the Internet through which citizens can vote on whether they want particular things to happen to their local communities, for instance whether they want a hydroelectrical power company entering their area or not.
Citizens must be vigilant and monitor each and every agreement made by governments so they are not left with a raw deal. In Nepal, for instance, a recent agreement with the Three Gorges Company of China was made on such unequal terms the Chinese company had most of the shares. After a public outcry, the company agreed to give 49% of the shares to the Nepali government. Without the quick intervention of citizens on the Net, it would not have been possible to change this agreement. This change was made possible due to public discussion and dialogue that appeared on the Net as soon as the media reported on the unequal deal that had been passed without major discussion in the Parliament. Similarly, other agreements between countries should be made publicly available instead of it remaining heavily guarded secrets between public representatives who may be taking massive bribes on the side, especially in Third World countries where raw materials are traded secretly and without the consent of the people.
Forests and water are now contested resources and states will often try to take these resources brutally, without the consent of those living in the lands. Mexico comes to mind, so does Thailand and Gabon. Through an open database run by an international entity (somewhat like the UN but without the UN’s heavy bureaucracy and lack of accountability), people in all countries should keep track of forests, water, and biodiversity that still remains untouched and ways in which these pockets of natural resources can be preserved and maintained with the help of local communities. An open database listing these resources as world wealth resources which cannot be touched by corporations or states without explicit consent of the majority of local residents should be made into international law.
In the state of Porto Allegre in Brazil, the government has instituted a participatory budgeting process in which local councils and municipalities vote on how the budget will be spent. This kind of participation by the people leads to great increase of citizen involvement in how development is envisioned and moved forward. This kind of participatory budgeting should also be part and parcel of Open Governance and Open Government, in which the facts and figures of how much money is given by the World Bank, by the Asian Development Bank, by DFID and other bilateral aid agencies, is put on the Open Government web of each country.
Ultimately, a young person born in this decade should be able to log onto his government’s website and be able to access everything from his or her local, municipal budget to the national one. He or she should be able to scroll down and see exactly how much aid money came in through bilateral and multilateral donors, and which government agencies it was given to. In order to track the flow of aid, he or she should be able to see how the money was spent, down to the last rupee, by tracking each salary of each highway road builder and each teacher. Then he should be able to click on the profile of the teacher to see if such a teacher really exists in real life (or whether he’s just on paper), and if such a teacher does exist, he should be able to download everything from the student feedback of the teacher’s teaching to his daily attendance at the school. All of this should be possible to access as an act of monitoring and evaluation that is freely available to the ordinary citizen on a public platform that is universally accessible. He or she should be able to quickly see the legislation pending in Parliament and be able to vote electronically on what they thinks should become policy. The young person should be able to say “no” to policies that are not in their own interest, and they should get a sense it is not just the hundred odd men in Parliament but the entire country voting on issues of importance to most people.
At the present time, our models of government have become antediluvian and outdated. We cannot expect a few hundred, sometimes uneducated representatives of the people to continue to make policy when the common intelligence of a much larger population is lying untapped. In order for politics to become participatory, we have to think of a new model in which a much larger portion of the world becomes energized regarding issues and social change. And this can only be done through open data systems that make information, as well as the right to information, central to the twenty first century’s model of governance.