Open Government: What does it really mean?


open government sort of means anything - Sudden Clarity Clarence

I have been researching open government schemes in recent weeks, specifically the way in which open government and open data is reported in the media. While I was perusing The Reboot website (HT @dalgoso) I came across a cracking blog post titled ‘Is Open Government Working?‘ It’s all worth reading but I was particularly interested by the following extract:

Part of the problem is the woolly, shifting definition of “open government,” which now seems to encompass any ‘innovative’ use of technology by the public sector. We need greater precision in our use of language. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials to account, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that fall under the open government umbrella?

I have been compiling examples of reporting on all things ‘open’ for weeks. Reading this gave me one of those rushes of recognition – I knew this already but I hadn’t put words to it yet. What I was reading time and time again were vague reports that are really about people talking about open government or open data, not really engaging with any of the data and making use of it. Coverage is rhetoric heavy – as one paper points out, that’s because of how ideologically constructed the ‘open movement’ is – and pretty thin on substance. This could well be because the entire concept of the ‘movement’ is way too vague to be useful.

I have read some supporters of the open movement who stress that the broadness of their interests is a strength: being encompassing allows different people to work together to create something really excellent. While this a noble aim, perhaps the lack of direction is holding back the real application of the open principles. It’s no good getting a bunch of data out there if nobody knows what they’re supposed to do with it.

Social Innovation & Identity Crisis


In an unassuming side street off Brixton High Road, up two flights of stairs and through a drab little landing I found myself in a room filled with strangers. I was greeted and given stickers with various descriptions on them – ‘troublemaker’, ‘designer’, ‘citizen’, ‘geek’ – before being told to meet these new people, chat with them and assign them a role.

The feeling that most often comes to mind when I reflect on my visit to a Social Innovation Camp meeting is that of feeling disarmed. The location, the participants, the topics of discussion, the ideas, the way of approaching problem solving – everything about it took me a step away from my comfort zone, the various ruts of how and why I work.

The meeting I attended was a small, short ideas workshop focused on health issues regarding young people. Attending with me were: some of the staff at LIVE magazine, a lady working in young people’s health, masters students, volunteers at a environmental awareness project, and a GCSE (high school) student. It was a little cagey but we were thrown into tasks quickly to help us get past that. First, we were asked to write down problems we had faced related to health services on post-it notes which were then stuck on the wall for all to see.

Complaining about the NHS (yes, it’s free; no, we’re not communists) is a British national past time but what thing do you think is a problem that could be solved with some hardwork, innovative thinking and £10,000? What do we actually want to do to make it better?

As far as I understand it, the modus operandi of SI Camp goes something like this:

Tech keeps changing the world – from publishing to education to banking to friendship – so why isn’t it combating global poverty issues? Answer: because the techies in charge of innovation don’t have the requisite skills or approaches to be effective in social issues. Solution: ally those techies with people who can fill those gaps.

On a much larger scale, it seems to me that Millennium Villages work on a similar sort of premise – one that assumes that holism is key to useful innovation and, therefore, effective problem solving. Millennium Villages bring together a vastly disparate selection of NGOs/development professionals that attempt to solve the problems or difficulties facing a community, all at the same time – there is no focus on, say, infrastructure over rights based approaches or other such arguments.

Of course, this plan has had its detractors. In fact, the debate surrounding Millennium Villages, their results and their funding might well be the biggest development blogosphere catfight of 2012 (I voted for it in the ABBAs an hour before I wrote this) – click on ‘blogosphere catfight’ as it contains a lot of the relevant posts and arguments if you’re interested. I’ll leave the fight to others. As Bob Dylan almost sang, don’t criticise what you haven’t read enough about to understand.

Regardless of the validity of the Millennium Villages vision, it is an approach that references a wider issue in the world of global development – what exactly is it? Given that being a ‘development worker’ can mean anything from designing emergency medical provision to building roads to controlling knowledge management systems, it seems to me that almost no one really knows quite what the industry actually is.

Consequently, trying to measure or rank between different bits of this vaguely unknown bloc of work is a difficult thing to do.  A more recent development blog furore surrounded this very issue as the excellent Dave Algoso took umbrage with an article by Global Journal entitled ‘2012 Top 100 Best NGOs‘,

“Ranking lists are great publicity for both the rankers and the ranked — but they usually involve bad analysis and mislead the audience.”

An awful lot of hyperbole was unleashed on what was, frankly, an extremely limited attempt at ranking NGOs.

A discussion ensued on Aidsource (the humanitarian social network that’ll make you fall out of love with Facebook) in which Algoso posited the following,

“Criticizing Global Journal’s list made me wonder whether there might be some categories where you actually can make a principled, evidence-based, and methodologically sound comparison between organizations. It certainly couldn’t be a comparison of something overarching like “impact” (because how would you ever compare, say, World Vision and Search for Common Ground? they do such different things) but maybe on something more narrow, you could make a comparison.”

This problem – perhaps the impossibility – of internal comparisons within the industry led me back to the question of what exactly ‘international development’ was. I don’t even know if we should call it ‘international development’ – is it global development? Are they the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? I might be completely wrong here – I am not an expert by any means, merely someone trying to feel their way into the sector – but I’ve looked for an explanation or definition and have failed to find it. So this is aimed at the pros:

Is international development suffering from an identity crisis?

(Just to be clear – I don’t have an answer.)

Until the industry sorts out questions like these, organisations like SI Camp can fill some of the gaps. They are tackling problem solving in interesting, un-bureaucratic ways that invite input from a more diverse range of voices than usual. What’s more, being asked to work quickly and creatively on development-type issues is a far cry from the relatively dull, text bitch type work that takes up most of my time. In fact, the change in style of working was so refreshing that, even though health isn’t an area that I have had any experience in previously, I’m more than ready to jump into the next SI Camp event.

Interested? Click below.