What’s cooking? Mixing and matching the ingredients of open government

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May 3, 2018

Alan Hudson, Executive Director

My role was to provide some commentary on a number of government-led projects that had been selected by INAI as the best examples of using proactive transparency to enable people and organizations to make better decisions and take more effective action. The projects covered a range of spheres including water resources, sustainable rural livelihoods, women’s political participation, migration and investment. In challenging times for the open government movement, in Mexico as in the US, giving attention to the values and principles of open governance, and celebrating the bright spots of success, can help to lay the groundwork, and make the case, for brighter times ahead.

Listening to the stories told by fellow panelists – including Sofia Aristeo Serdán, who was the star of the show with her inspiring account of the work she has been involved in on sustainable rural livelihoods (video interview, in Spanish, here) – it occurred to me that they were all stories about complex, dynamic systems. Each system involves multiple players pursuing their goals; the legal rules, social norms, political dynamics and incentives that shape players’ actions and relationships; and flows of information and other resources between the various actors. And at the heart of those systems are people, using information to manage risks, to make decisions and to address the problems they face. The projects, with proactive transparency at their core, are all about enabling participants in the system – indigenous communities, women, migrants, businesses and water users – to more effectively access and use information to address specific challenges and, in effect, to shift the balance of power.

In looking across the award-winning projects, I was struck by two things. First, that each project is made up of a different mix of transparency, participation and accountability – the three essential ingredients of open government – with some having a balance of all three, and others perhaps a little light as regards participation and accountability. And second, that the nature of citizen participation – the strength of this ingredient, if you will – varies too, from people being informed, to people using information, to people sharing information, to people making decisions and setting the rules. The mix of transparency, participation and accountability, and particularly the strength of participation, has a big bearing on whether the project effectively empowers citizens to work the system, meeting their goals and shaping the system so that it is more effective, more efficient, more inclusive and more just. Furthermore, addressing different problems will require different mixes of the key ingredients, and different types of participation.

Each of the panelists had been asked to say how their project contributed to opening government. This is a useful opening question. But for me, a more useful question would be whether the mix of transparency, participation and accountability, and the type of participation involved, helps to empower actors so that they can improve their lives and livelihoods, and improve the system of which they are part. Asking this question may create more space for reflection, helping to inform the design and implementation of projects, and of policy commitments, that will translate open government principles into empowered citizens, better systems and practical results.

Opening government requires a number of ingredients. But it is never as simple as following a recipe. The right recipe will vary depending on the problem and the context, and most particularly the political dynamics and incentives that hold particular problems in place. And recipes that work will emerge over time as a result of trying different mixes of ingredients and types of participation. The hunch or hypothesis that drives our work, in Mexico and around the world, is that by supporting reflection about the mix of ingredients and the results being achieved in particular places, and by facilitating learning across different contexts, we can help those who are in the kitchen to cook up more nourishing meals.

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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