This is a short paper I will be presenting at the Global Public Policy Network Conference in Tokyo in December. A couple of people have asked me to send it to them and I’m lazy so I thought I’d put it up on here.
Citizens exist in wider networks in which they are more connected than ever before. So far, government led initiatives to react to this new reality have been tokenistic and too focused on benefits related to communication strategies than serious improvements to public institutions. This reflects an unpopular cynical political reality that will have to adapt in the future: with that adaptation will come improvements and innovations to public institutions.
In response to the 2007 post-election turmoil in Kenya, a small team of bloggers and programmers put together a website to record and categorise eye-witness accounts of incidents of violence as well as mapping them online as a resource for other citizens. This website, Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’ in Kiswahili), was found to be more accurate and more timely than information supplied by both the traditional media and the government1.
This platform for responsive, open information has since been implemented in a number of crises around the world including the Haiti earthquake of 2010, the so-called Arab Spring on 2011 and during the Queensland floods in Australia in 2012. Ushahidi has received a huge amount of praise and shown itself to be adaptable to many situations.
The Open Government movement (OGM) has been growing in support since the advent of the networked age but, in particular, since 2008 when President Obama brought it to the mainstream by declaring his dedication “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.2” The public will become included, relevant, vital in the policy process by giving them access to the pertinent data – that’s the ideal of Open Government.
Obama’s government in particular has come under massive scrutiny for which data it chooses to publish. Furthermore, the inclusion of the public into such matters leaves much to be desired – Obama’s administration has harboured an unprecedented hostility for whistleblowers and leaks of any kind, rather than openness.
They are not alone. Numerous other Governments that have preached the virtues of openness have since been embarrassed by revelations from civil society actors, the media and the public about hypocrisy on this matter. A look at the list of past and present member states of the Open Government Partnership (the global initiative that Obama’s administration helped to start with the aim to spread the mission of the OGM) has some high-profile cases: the UK, Brazil, South Africa, and Russia probably the biggest.
While the OGM has laudable theoretical foundations, the current wave is too government dominated. These ‘open governments’ only publish what they want to publish – ‘openness’ is defined primarily in terms of what these dominant actors perceive will benefit them, not the general public.
Trust in governments has fallen behind other major social institutions in recent years3. Business, the media and NGOs are now, more than ever, regarded as a safer bet by the general public. Any new framework for crisis response must take into account the high degree of scepticism that governments now face: government agencies are not necessarily regarded as the best choice to control these situations. While they might remain the best choice for now, this deep-seated mistrust will likely hamper crisis response in the future if it is not addressed.
The general public expects to be involved in processes now, in feedback mechanisms and in sharing. The promise of massive smart-web access has been bought into: the explosion of smartphone devices in both the developed and developing world is evidence of this. It is a phenomenon that government has yet to truly embrace: the sharing age of internet communication is a two-way street. The benefits of this paradigm are particularly clear in instances of disasters when public institutions are most likely out of position and outmatched – no institution can be prepared for everything.
The failings of the OGM to date are thrown into harsh relief by the relative success of IT start-ups like Ushahidi. The modern world is a networked society4 and citizens expect to be given full and prompt access to information in times of crisis. Given a well managed platform, citizens will collaborate in the face of adversity to try to guide crisis management. What they will not respond well to is governments withholding information in the wake of crises – the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake is an excellent example of withdrawn or manipulated information to the public backfiring5.
There will be situations in which withheld information has a clear benefit – as in ongoing terrorist attacks like the tragedy in Westgate Mall earlier this year. It is, in such cases, important to relay the reasoning of the managing public body as and when the situations arise. It is also vital not to allow governments to hide behind such reasons without proper scrutiny of these decisions after the danger has passed. The government must engage with technological advances and the related cultural changes in society to restore public trust in them.
Crisis management can be improved by establishing a foundation of meaningful openness. Borrowing techniques from the private sector or partnering with such experts as the team behind Ushahidi would be an excellent step. It is incredibly difficult to coordinate and manage resources during crises; it is even more difficult to do so when various groups of people are poorly or incorrectly informed. It is the role of public institutions to endeavour that this happens as little as possible.
1: Clay Shirky, 2011. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin: London
2: Barack Obama, 2009. Memorandum to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies: Transparency and Open Government. [Link: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment]
3: Edelman, 2013. Trust Barometer. [Link: http://www.edelman.com/insights/intellectual-property/trust-2013/]
4: Manuel Castells, 2009. Communication Power. Oxford University Press: Oxford
5: Norimitsu Onishi & Martin Fackler, New York Times, 2011. Japan Held Nuclear Data, eaving Evacuees in Peril. [Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/world/asia/09japan.html?pagewanted=all]