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14. October 2011

Open Government

Fix my Society through Open Government

Elke Loeffler, Tony Bovaird and Frankie Hine-Hughes ran a well attended workshop at the Open Government BarCamp held by the Government 2.0 Netzwerk Deutschland in Berlin on 29th and 30th September. This blog sets out some of our thoughts and conclusions from the event and the discussions in and around the sessions.

The topic of open government has exploded since Barack Obama published an Open Government Directive for the United States Government. The directive included a commitment to unprecedented openness in Government in order to increase public trust and establish transparency, public participation, and collaboration in what the government does.  Greater openness is argued to strengthen democracy and promote the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

Following this US lead, governments across the world have followed suit in attempting to demonstrate their commitment to open government. The international scene has seen the formation of the Open Government Partnership - a multilateral government initiative seeking commitments to open government.

However, is 'open government' actually the right term? Since the concept has exploded onto the public governance scene, it has been obsessed in particular with transparency and open data, which have been treated as 'first amongst equals' in open government initiatives. The success of open government reforms is often being gauged in terms of how much transparency has increased and how many datasets have been published on-line. Much less attention has been paid to increasing citizen participation to help in  co-commissioning, co-design, co-delivery and co-assessing public services . Indeed, a recent report by America Speaks accuses the US government of failing to move towards a more participatory approach, due to focusing too much on transparency.

This obsession with getting data and information out there is misplaced. As some conference participants reminded us, an authoritarian government can publish a large number of datasets and claim to be open. So open government isn't just about information - it is also about enabling citizens to change how things are done. While transparency is important, it only enhances accountability, if it is combined with engagement mechanisms, so that they are interested.

For this reason we entitled our presentation 'Fix my society: more citizen participation through open government?'. We showcased four examples where government was made more open and participatory, particularly focusing on the most disenfranchised in society and issues that affect how we view our communities.

First, we talked about Stockport Council's adult social care website. The original website provided insufficient information, was hard to use and didn't help informed decision making - wasting everybody's time and increasing the frustration of actual and would-be service users. The council decided to co-design its new website with service users and providers. The new website, was much improved, with relevant and easy-to-find information. It has already had over 100,000 hits and provides an estimated saving of £300,000 per year. You can get more information about this by reading the case study here.

Our second example highlighted the work of Podnosh and Talk About Local. These two organisations provide training to help people get the skills and support they need to give their community a voice online. Both organisations have received funding from local authorities to provide training in deprived communities, so that local people can set up web-pages and circulate e-newsletters, at low cost  (e,g. by using free technologies such as Talk About Local has helped in setting up over 400 websites. These websites help people to engage with local authorities and service providers more effectively, using less time and energy. Moreover, they spread more information locally than can be achieved by traditional means.  For example the web site ran a campaign against Network Rail?s plans to refurbish Kings Cross station, because the plans didn't take the local community into account. The site lobbied LB of  Camden council to act, so that Network Rail was pressured into providing £1 million for community enhancements before planning permission was given.   

We then talked about FixMyStreet created by in 2007, with initial funding from the UK Government  FixMyStreet enables people to report, view or discuss common local problems (potholes in roads, graffiti, flytipping and so on) that if left unsorted can result in a 'broken window effect'. FixMyStreet is simple to use - you just enter your postcode, or street name, click on a map, input your problem (possibly with a photo), and it is documented on the site and the relevant council is informed. This enables citizens to see how many issues are reported in their areas - and also to see how responsive its council has been.  In turn, the council then has an incentive to act quickly and effectively. The site increases local authority accountability, increases local trust, strengthens citizen participation, and improves how we perceive our community.

It has been a major success: in the past week (14 October 2011) 1,034 reports have been made, 1,834 problems have been fixed in the past month, and there have been over 163,383 updates on reports since the site was created.

Our final example was Camden Council's use of social media to connect with its residents. Social media usage has exploded and Camden Council has taken a pro-active approach. Alasdair Mangham, Head of Information Systems and Development, says it has been a very cost effective way of communicating with citizens, and provides real-time feedback on how citizens view and feel about Camden?s services. Rather than simply pushing the message 'out there', the Council now engages in on-going conversations with citizens. The complaints management team uses Twitter to see what people say about them and to feedback quickly how they have responded to the complaints. One example was a complaint that a local park was closed during snow a year ago. Camden Council quickly tweeted that the park was closed because staff had not been able to get to work, and directed him to a website with details of local services disrupted by the weather. The following day the Council proactively tweeted to the man who complained that all Camden parks were now open.  This brought the enthusiastic response that he would blog about how good the Council had been (he has over 1,000 followers). This was publicity of the best kind - it stopped a complainant being sour, transformed him into an ally and resulted in the council being promoted by one of its customers as dynamic and effective.  To read more about how Camden has used social media to communicate better with its community, read this interview with Alasdair Mangham.

It became clear that Germany is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to open government - e.g. it is not amongst the participating states for the Open Government Partnership. Despite having a burgeoning data using community, there are administrative and legislative barriers to opening up data. In our view, this reinforces the value for Germany in taking the lead in emphasising the citizen engagement strand of any potential open government strategy.

In particular, local authorities in Germany should open themselves up to citizens, so that they can both make better use of each other's assets. Germany already has many good practice examples of this - the time has come for them to be scaled up and disseminated more widely.  Towns like Nürtingen in Baden-Würtemburg and Offenbach in Hessen have a huge amount to offer in terms of smart citizen engagement - but have not yet cottoned onto the potential of social media.

So we came away from the 2011 Open Government Barcamp thinking that Germany has the opportunity to develop an open government strategy that fits its own strengths rather than struggling with pursuing transparency and open data as ends themselves. We hope that at next year's Barcamp the conversation will have moved to giving as much weight to open dialogue as to open data. And we hope, too, that the potential for transfer of international best practice is given more weight in the programme. After all, if open government is to empower citizens, we want them to be able to say  'No decision about me without me!' not just 'No decision about me without me being able to read it about in the internet!'

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