In their introductory essay to the recent IDS Bulletin on Opening Governance (the entire issue is open access), Duncan Edwards and Rosie McGee critically appraise developments in the open government/governance space over the past several years, since the landmark 2010 review commissioned by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. The authors reflect on recent debates and the state of the evidence, which is bolstered by the issue’s own set of research articles. Surveying the progress and continued challenges, Edwards and McGee call for both conceptual clarity around open governance and for deeper integration of lessons learned into practice.
With respect to the first call, the authors helpfully delineate open government, open data, accountability and open governance – terms often used loosely – pointing to the negative outcomes of conceptual ambiguity and providing definitions of each. On the second front, the authors consolidate a set of clear lessons about efforts to open up governance (understood as “working towards governance relationships and processes that are transparent, accountable and participatory, and allow the perspectives, needs and rights of all citizens to be addressed, including those most marginalized by power relations”), but caution that growing evidence and insights for the design and integration of open governance efforts – including insights that have been acknowledged for some years – are failing to shape practice. Our best understanding of what works are “relatively complex, strategic, multi-stranded, politically-savvy long-term processes”, yet too many open government interventions are short-term, simplistic and isolated. To use Jonathan Fox’s terminology, opening governance efforts still often fail to move from the ‘tactical’ to the ‘strategic’.
I think this is a fair assessment, and indeed largely dovetails with the lessons emerging from T/AI’s work over the past couple of years on the intersection between transparency, participation and accountability (TPA). This includes an exploration of grant-making approaches that encourage learning and adaptation, a discussion paper on TPA approaches that address ecosystems of actors and processes, five big challenges and propositions for opening governance, and a forthcoming report on ‘connecting the dots’ for more holistic strategies for accountability. It also echoes key messages coming from wider governance reform efforts, and indeed aid and development more broadly.
In the remainder of this post, I’ll take a closer look at what would be a healthy shift from open government to open governance, in both language and practice, and how our learning can shape our efforts.
Beyond Open Government
As Edwards and McGee highlight, open government has been rather stuck on the T part of the TPA nexus (although there are promising signs of growth). This focus on transparency has both contributed to and reflects a significant growth and evolution of open data, access to information, e-governance, and increasing rhetorical commitments to openness from governments around the world. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) probably best encapsulates the zeitgeist of open government movement: vibrant and expanding, but with doubts about depth and impact, and leaving some actors questioning if it’s worth their investment.
In my opinion, an open governance lens gives us the best insight into how to leverage open government initiatives and efforts. It starts with realistic expectations. We should not expect open government programs to transform governance systems in most contexts. There are too many other factors and variables. Supporting improvements in governance is hard, and there are no shortcuts.
For example, Taking advantage of right to information (RTI) legislation means thinking of it as an additional tool for reform actors, not believing that the lid has been pried off of government opacity in one shot. Similarly, leveraging OGP involves recognizing how to navigate OGP processes within larger political and reform dynamics. Both RTI and OGP are part of an ecosystem of actors, initiatives and processes involved in opening governance, leveraging specific elements of transparency, participation and accountability and their interactions, rather than implying a simple formula for openness. Efforts need to be made to strengthen and connect actors and processes across the ecosystem in order to get to real openness and accountability.
Thus, open government efforts must be part of a larger approach to opening governance. The tools and actors working on open government are making useful progress in many areas. However, the challenge is to bring together some of these advances, with a more holistic and politically-informed perspective on how governance processes change and become more open and inclusive. That means abandoning quick-fix thinking about deeply rooted challenges, exemplified by the focus of many actors on ‘closing the feedback loop’ between citizen and state actors, which has many embedded assumptions about the incentives and capacities of those involved.
Too often citizen participation is weakly understood (despite robust evidence) when this is a critical and complex factor in efforts to open governance. As noted, just transmitting information from citizens to decision makers generally does not ensure improved services or inclusive decisions. Furthermore, giving citizen and civil society actors a seat at the decision-making table is not enough to shift power relations. If we really want inclusive and open governance processes, we need to get real about supporting citizen collective action: movements, grassroots organizations, membership-based associations, networks.
To give one example, despite a growing spotlight over the past decades on the rights of women and girls, funding for women’s organizations is meager, despite evidence that it is women’s movements that are behind progress on women’s issues across all contexts. Where are the women’s organizations in the open government big tent? Opening governance means engaging with and supporting citizen movements and organizations as key actors in the accountability ecosystem, along with transparency tools and accountability processes and mechanisms.
Learning to practice
As Duncan and Rosie point out, we have better evidence and more refined insights about efforts to open governance than ever before. Funders and practitioners need to better integrate these. We also live in challenging times, in which there are as many (or more) indications of closing governance as of openings. That means incorporating broad principles, such as those outlined by Jonathan Fox, researchers at the Overseas Development Institute, and my own contributions, but with a focus on learning and adaptation as contexts change, opportunities arise, and new obstacles emerge.
Colleagues, such as Alan Hudson at Global Integrity, have highlighted the two-way relationship between adaptive learning and open governance. Governance is dynamic and actors learn as they go, but as openness takes root it provides an enabling environment for further learning, experimentation and innovation, underpinned by efforts to address exclusion and power inequalities.
In T/AI’s efforts to explore holistic strategies, we’ve found that citizen’s movements and organizations learn as they go, and trial and error can lead to more strategic approaches. But sometimes external support, particularly funding, can constrain learning, as organizations focus on more linear projects and predefined outputs. Learning isn’t a silver bullet, but the increasing emphasis on learning in the open governance community is a significant and positive trend. As we found at a recent gathering that focused on learning:
Actors working on and supporting transparency and accountability have been – and continue to be – learning important lessons. That learning needs to be practice oriented and enable adaptation. We are moving in the right direction, but there is still a ways to go – both in broadening our knowledge base and in undertaking learning that really shapes practice.
See more reflections from the event here.
Ultimately, we are still learning about how to strengthen ecosystems of actors, institutions and mechanisms to achieve real open governance. T/AI has been helping to generate actionable lessons about the role of movements and grassroots organizations (see learning agenda here) and how to ‘connect the dots’ between civil society engagement and the state across levels of governance (see workshop report with cases and discussion), among other things. Duncan and Rosie’s piece (and the entire IDS Bulletin issue) also helps sharpen our thinking about what the evidence tells us and what challenges remain.