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Open government or new boys’ club?

Blog | March 8, 2016 | Duncan Edwards

International Women’s Day feels like a good time to reflect on whether we are considering carefully enough who is engaged in shaping of developing visions of open government...

At the OGP Summit in Mexico in October 2015, I chaired a panel which was originally entitled “In search of inclusion: getting a seat at the table”. I changed the title to “Open government or New Boys’ club?” I did this for two reasons:

  • Firstly, if we look at many of the initiatives which are attempting to use technology for the purposes of open government, most are used by 25-40 year old educated, urban, elite males, what you might describe as a “new boys’ club”.
  • And secondly, is “getting a seat at the table” sufficient if the vision sought/pursued is inclusive open governance? Just because you have a seat at the table it doesn’t mean your voice is heard. As many people have argued previously - access is not enough.

Looking at many of the commitments made within OGP Action Plans, they tend to focus on “things”, “widgets” or “products” – whether this is data, information, tech platforms, or legislation. There seems to be less on the processes by which these things are created, shaped and utilised, and the processes and relationships that would make governance open. You can read more about Opening Governance in the new IDS Bulletin.

For example – just because legally all the citizens of a country might have the right to information, it doesn’t mean they all face the same barriers, or can all overcome the barriers they face on the way to claiming this right. Recent research by Laura Neuman of the Carter Center demonstrates that women are not able to exercise rights to access to information with the same frequency, ease and rate of success as men.

If we are thinking about open government in terms of transparency and accountability, we should also be considering inclusion across the full range of processes that are necessary for transparency to lead to accountability. When the focus is on ensuring inclusive access to data and information, how can we be sure that that inclusion will be reflected in the degree to which different members of our societies are able to make use of it in accountability-claiming processes?

Let’s look at a simple causal chain (adapted slightly from Peixoto 2013) that maps out how transparency might lead to accountability:

  1.  Governmental information is disclosed;
  2.  The disclosed information reaches its intended public;
  3.  Members of the public are able to process the disclosed information and react to it – which may include processes of mobilisation, consultation, participation, representation; and
  4. Public officials respond to the public’s reaction or are sanctioned by the public through institutional means.

How are we looking at inclusion and exclusion across these different steps? Are there different types of exclusion that are particularly problematic in different processes?

For example, how are different actors involved in determining which data gets published? How are different groups able to make use of legislation to ensure institutional sanctions are applied?

Some of the multiple forms of exclusion that might come to mind where technology is involved relate to digital divides, data divides, capacity to engage, capacity to analyse and process data and information. But also looking at barriers such as confidence, agency, cultural norms, lack of trust and low expectations, and also fear of reprisals….

….flipping things on their head slightly, technology can offer opportunities for us to monitor our governments’ actions and inactions, but can also be used by governments to surveil and monitor us. Talk of reaching the hard-to-reach sounds laudably inclusive, but sometimes those that are hard to reach don’t want to be reached.

If we consider that in many cases the process of achieving accountability is a process of challenging power, the powerful tend to have greater capacity and access to technology to resist those that challenge them. And following on from this, different groups in society, particularly marginalised groups, may have very different degrees of exposure and vulnerability to the risks of surveillance. Read more in Emiliano Treré’s piece on the Dark Side of Digital Politics.

Inclusion and marginalisation are often framed as being about reaching minorities on the margins of society. But consider this: a key challenge for South Africa as an OGP member and current Co-Chair is that in South African society it’s actually the majority who are marginalised.

A parallel challenge highlighted by Laura Neuman at the OGP Summit in Mexico in November 2015 is that only 2 of 66 OGP National Action Plans contain any reference to gender. It’s not that we don’t see gender explicitly mentioned in every commitment – you wouldn’t expect to. It’s that there is no sign that the principle of gender equity is mainstreamed throughout the Plans. This is worrying. Whether or not women as approximately 50% of our population are likely to engage in, shape, and feel the benefits of open government, warrants further investigating and challenging.

What can you do?

Making All Voices Count recently launched a call for proposals aimed at supporting civil society to engage in innovative approaches to the development of OGP National Action Plans and their implementation, or monitor and challenge their governments over how they pursue these commitments.

We are a learning programme – and we’d love to see innovative proposal ideas that focus on learning and action research approaches, which would help shape OGP processes as they unfold and also help others to understand how to make governance processes more inclusive, more participatory, less biased-by-default.

On International Women’s Day is it more important than ever to think about how the voices of women count in the visions and processes of open government and governance, and on their own terms? Rather than promoting a “new boys’ club”, how do we move to truly open governance, with women equitably engaging and shaping the processes, relationships and rules of the game of governance?


About the author

Duncan Edwards is Programme Manager for Making All Voices Count’s Research, Evidence and Learning component , based at the Institute of Development Studies.
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