Why is the OpenGov movement siloed?

As a follow up to my post ‘on the open government movement and silos’ quite a few people came back to me asking ‘well this is all very nice but why are open government groups not working better together?’ So here’s a shot at answering the question:

First, why should we seek to build a global open government movement?

(1) so that groups can work better, more strategically together to solve common problems (e.g. budget groups working with freedom of information and open data groups to make budgets public)

(2) so that we approach politicians and citizens with one common discourse around open government (and so we do not remain locked in our ‘geek box’). The fact that this year’s G8 summit will focus on transparency is a testament to how far we’ve come in convincing high level politicians that our agenda matters.

But why aren’t groups working together more effectively? Here is what I have heard from groups so far:

(1) Each community of practice (whether budget groups, freedom of information, open data groups, extractives’ groups) has its own language, discourse, way of working, basic reason for why they are doing this in the first place (e.g. whether to deepen democracy or decrease poverty) which can be a big barrier to doing business together

(2) NGOs are in competition for limited resources: why should civil society groups make an effort to coordinate when they will ultimately be competing against each other for a limited pot of funding?

(3) Coordination, partnership is hard work! Why do it unless there is a clear pay-off at the end? With limited resources to start with, why should CSOs work and partner together, when they could forge ahead with their own agenda (perhaps faster)?

What can we do about it and what is the role of the gatekeepers / gate makers?

(1) What can donors do? How can we better resource CSOs? Do large funds such as Making All Voices Count and GPSA help?

(2) What can international and national processes like Open Government Partnership (OGP) do to help bring people together? In my experience in the UK, OGP is playing a huge role in bringing together a broad group of civil society groups working on opengov that had previously never met nor worked on a common platform.

Ideas welcome! And I will mull over myself some more…


6 thoughts on “Why is the OpenGov movement siloed?

  1. Martin, thanks for this post. I share your concern and interest in improving our collaboration across the various transparency and accountability movements. You ask why groups aren’t working together more effectively – I have a few ideas.
    1) Confusion over the term “standard”; I think your point about different discourses and languages is crucial. This was much discussed at the recent workshop on linking data around and within the extractive industries. Some transparency communities have pursued detailed, technical open data standards, such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and – hopefully! – the burgeoning Open Contracting Partnership. Others, like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), have adopted guideline frameworks/standards. These have been applied sometimes quite narrowly, such as in the form of guidance on reporting payments, or very widely, to agree international norms for behaviour and interaction throughout the life cycle (such as open budgets).
    There are clearly a host of factors that influence what approaches are adopted and when – resource constraints, political will, and technical capacity are just a few. EITI, for example, was born before the explosion of open data approaches, and it will be interesting to see how EU and US transparency regulations on extractives are dovetailed with existing transparency models, and whether a comprehensive technical standard is appropriate or feasible.

    2) The distinction between “publishing” and “reporting”. Yes, this is semantic, but in some situations is indicative of the need for fundamental behavioural change – moving from annual reporting of past activities to real-time sharing of useful information. For example, annual reporting is widely accepted as a duty for organisations that are beholden to external stakeholders (taxpayers, funders etc). It’s a worthy and important goal just to extract this kind of audited annual accounts and overview of activities. But in some fields and for some actors, this kind of information just doesn’t cut the mustard. The aid transparency movement emerged largely because of the demand for current management information – and not just financial data – so that recipients and other donors could plan and deliver their own activities more effectively.
    So, it’s a challenge to identify useful overlap and interoperability between different sectors in part because we’re sometimes asking for different things. To put it simply, the aid transparency world is often asking for the information available piecemeal on organisations’ websites, but in a standardised, timely, and accessible form. There is a lot of common ground with the audited data we all want from companies, governments and NGOs, but how it is presented and identifying common requirements across sectors is not always straightforward.

    Overall, I’m feeling positive – there’s a lot of energy at the moment being spent on bringing together these different streams. The Open Contracting Partnership is a great example of learning from existing initiatives and striving for interoperability. But aside from technical standards development, we do need to maximise our advocacy opportunities by speaking with one voice (where possible) as it’s often directed at the same organisations…

    On NGOs competing for limited resources – maybe, though I’ve not experienced that as a serious hindrance to collaboration. Yes, money is tight and time and resources for active cooperation is hard to prioritise, but I’m actually struck by how open to cooperation NGOs working on transparency are. In fact, the opposite can be true, where progressive funders have made it clear that they want to see complementarity among their grantees.

  2. Coordination & partnership are, indeed, hard work and require real resources. We have found that getting even the attention (much less the engagement) of groups that don’t have openness as a primary part of their mission is a real struggle. It is not just different ‘language’ but the quotidian struggle to accomplish their goals does not open the space to hear how open government can assist. For those of us who try to do outreach, finding the way in (even to talk) and finding the right framing for the discussion can mean learning and thinking-through new issue areas. Which, of course, requires time and the luxury of thoughtful pondering & writing — which is also in short supply.

    For us in the US, what has worked over the years has been coalitional work on a fairly broad range of openness issues, where groups can learn from the work of others and choose which of their issues to engage on. All of us don’t have to be experts on every issue about which we might care and want to add our voices on; we rely on one another for the expertise and the opportunities to engage. So, we try not to have gatekeepers — but we do rely on trusted relationships. And the organizations with which we work have found this very useful to promote their work to and with a broader community. There was tension over funding when our coalition was formed (10 years ago), but we have proven that we do “value-add” to the work of others.

    There are some great international collaborations on other areas (budget transparency, development funding, extractive industries). I wonder if data lends itself better to global efforts?

    Anyway, these are my thoughts.

    • Hi Patrice
      Wonderful thoughts, thank you for taking the time! A very interesting question of yours: “does data lend itself better to global efforts?” Thank you for asking it. I will ponder! best, Martin

  3. Hi Martin, By coincidence I wrote this post last week lamenting the Australian silos – they’re found in government as well as CSO land.
    I urged some connecting the EITI and OGP dots with the EITI Global Conference coming up in Sydney next month, expressing the hope that Australia will overcome its lethargy by announcing at the conference the intention to join the OGP. And that some imaginative thinking about what we could do with a national action plan, and some leadership within the CSO sector might combine to start to open those silos as well.
    And Hi Patrice – we envy the coalitions you have and their capacity to come together-hard work indeed.

  4. Pingback: Privacy – the Open Government Party Crasher | open up

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