Is open goverment just about the data?

The latest social media phenom is Quora. A kind of question and answer forum. Its neatest trick is that it encourages you to re-produce your social graph from Twitter. Ready made followers and people you probably already ask questions of to follow.

Anyhoo…there was a question on Quora I answered recently Does open government require a democracy?

Off the cuff, I answered yes.

But surprisingly many people answered no, the two weren’t necessarily connected. Citing China and its experiments with open data and government as a platform or wikileaks forcing government information into the open.

This strikes me as missing the whole point of open government. Open government isn’t about the information, it’s about what you can do with it. And I don’t mean use data to come up with commercial web services (nothing wrong with that) or to embarrass current or former administrations through leaked diplomatic cables. It’s about how you can make things change, how you can make things better, or how you can influence decisions. As a citizen. As a citizen who isn’t necessarily a member of powerful political group or with enough cash to buy power.

I don’t want to get into some kind of semantic debate about what is democracy, as democracy can take many forms. But what it boils down to is a system where citizens can make some decisions which affect outcomes. That is – whether decisions are made directly or decisions are delegated to representatives, people make the choice. People make the challenge. And importantly people can do so without fear of losing liberty or property. So sorry China, I don’t really care how many data sets you publish, so long as people can be forcibly evicted from their homes and have no right of redress and can be locked up for pointing that out or while religious groups are persecuted or artists are under house arrest and there’s only one viable political party – there’s no open government.

Talkin’ bout a revolution

In a number of speeches I’ve given, I compare social media to the printing press. And I think open information could be just as revolutionary. But not all revolutions end well, in fact they usually end up with progroms and purges. Not all revolutionary developments are universally beneficial to humankind. As transformational as the printing press has been to much of Northern Europe – undermining the role of the church and the monarchy and putting power in the hands of ordinary people – the widely distributed written word hasn’t changed lives for the better everywhere. And even where it’s been largely of benefit, pernicious documents like Mein Kampf or Protocols of the Elders of Zion can be easily and cheaply mass produced to stir up heaps of trouble which they’ve done from first imprint until today. And the Internet certainly has its equivalents – from Al Qaeda inhabited Islamist chatrooms to racist hate group websites – the power of the Internet is being used for good and ill. And as people become more sophisticated at open data or use leaked documents to target political opponents we’ll see good and bad coming from open information.

But where there’s a foundation of democracy and liberty, open information is more likely to support open government. Where there’s an expectation of free speech, which allows you to make challenges based on open data then you can have open government. But where there isn’t a firm foundation of liberty, it won’t. Look at Glasnost – Gorbachev’s attempt at open government. It changed things forever, it contributed to the fall of the USSR, but years later speaking out against power in Russia might land you in Siberia or in a London hospital with polonium poisoning. That’s not sustainable open government.

Open deliberation

I’m a huge fan of open information. I think it will make democracies stronger. I think it will bring us closer to open government. But open government isn’t about data, it’s about deliberation. It’s about choice, influence and participation without fear and as much as possible without favour.

(Originally posted here – and updated to add the obvious caveat that even democracies with a substantial degree of openness get it wrong sometimes.)

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