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Open government: A new window on the world

One irony of the digital revolution is that it has made the once relatively simple concept of government transparency significantly more opaque. In the old days of paper, transparency generally meant two things: meetings and documents. The game was about what public officials would show you and what they wouldn't and how long it would take to find out.

The rise of the Internet brought an increased focus on proactive disclosure of agency reports, audits and visitors' logs. Soon the government was releasing massive data sets online, even if no one had specifically requested them, and the concept of transparency became a matter of how clearly information was organized and how easily it could be searched, as much as it was about the content itself.

As the Web enabled new sorts of communication between the government and its governed, the blanket term "transparency" expanded to include a host of programs that make democracy more participatory through blogs, wikis and social media conversations. The scope, possibilities and trapdoors of transparency writ large are on display through the Open Government Partnership, a new association of more than 40 nations committed to open government practices.

Eight steering committee nations already have published lists of commitments under the partnership. Those range from the old-fashioned, such as the Philippines' promise to establish an effective and efficient public information portal, to the Internet Age, such as an Indonesian plan to create a digitized map of all its national timber resources.

The U.S. commitments similarly run the gamut from using better search technology to speed agency responses to Freedom of Information Act requests to a plan to publish all federal spending data in a single, searchable database modeled after the Recovery.gov website, which tracks funds disbursed under the 2009 stimulus law. Among the most important elements of the U.S. plan, experts say, is a commitment to join the international Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which tracks governments' revenue from oil and gas drilling and mineral mining.

The expanding tent of open government can be a good thing, bringing together traditional freedom of information advocates and their latter day techie counterparts, says Nathaniel Heller, co-founder and executive director of Global Integrity, a Washington-based transparency think tank.

"The communities of practice are still so bifurcated and siloed. With rare exceptions, the civic hackers and the born-digital types rarely know much about the FOIA champions that came before them 15, 20 or 30 years ago," Heller says. "That could be a positive outcome of OGP, reframing all these groups under something bigger that invites these communities to share their knowledge. On the flip side, it invites a lot of confusion. It invites everybody to pile into the bus with their pet project and just call it open government."

The Norwegian document, for example, includes several vague commitments to increase female representation in government and in top private sector posts. "That's a wonderful goal, but is it open government?" Heller says. "That's going to be a challenge with OGP. Do we leave fuzzy and unlabeled what we mean by open government?"

The Open Government Partnership was specifically designed as a loose community, says Heller, whose organization did much of the communications work for the initiative in the run-up to its September launch on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The steering committee nations wanted to make the partnership a "race to the top," he says, not a stick to beat China, Iran and other less transparent nations with. They also wanted a system that allowed nations to mold transparency to their own needs, rather than imposing a set of standards from on high in the nature of a U.N. declaration.

That question of what transparency means in different countries is a tricky one. U.S. transparency groups have applauded the Obama administration's many high-tech transparency initiatives, but also have criticized the White House for valuing quantity over quality in disclosure and for not putting enough muscle behind low-tech initiatives such as declassifying old national security documents, improving agency responsiveness to FOIA requests and better protecting government whistleblowers.

John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, for instance, acknowledges that Data.gov, the administration's data set trove, is "probably still the world's best data portal." But then he launches into a critique of data agencies post to the site, which veers more toward which metro areas are consuming the most lima beans and less toward which contractors are receiving the most federal money.

Brazil, which currently co-chairs the partnership's steering committee with the United States, has an online contractor database that puts detailed information about individual procurements online within just a few days. That system puts its U.S. counterpart to shame, Wonderlich says.

The South African commitments, by contrast, don't specifically address government contractors, but focus heavily on the effective delivery of government services, including a Know Your Service Rights and Responsibilities public outreach campaign.

"In developing nations there tends to be a relatively greater emphasis on service delivery," Heller says, "because those are the challenges those countries face - keeping the electricity on for 24 hours and making sure schools actually work."

That's not to say tech-enabled transparency has no place outside industrialized nations. Several developing nations with comparatively low Internet penetration are publishing government information online, including India, which uses a similar site to Data.gov. Those nations' wired journalists and civil society organizations then filter and transmit that information to the wider citizenry in newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts.

Projects like the We the People public petition website in the United States are less likely to translate, though, in nations where the Internet is not as prevalent and citizens are more concerned with having good roads to market than petitioning their government for redress.

Yet one of the most important parts of the partnership, Heller and Wonderlich both say, is its acknowledgement that large pieces of transparency do translate from government to government. We the People, for instance, was based largely on a British model. And the United States and India are teaming up to publish open source code for their public data set sites - a project they call "Data.gov in a box."

"What's important, more than the individual commitments, is this idea that countries around the world should view their governance issues in light of other countries' governance issues," Wonderlich says. "It's good for countries to say to each other, 'How do you deal with this problem? And, if you're doing better than us, how does that work?' "

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// April 22