From the moment I stepped through the doors of the conference today it was obvious that something was different. The security procedures had been stepped up, the ubiquitous police 4x4s had been replaced by entire busloads of police officers and many of the attendees were noticeably smarter dressed than yesterday. Yes, the politicians, governments and bilateral agencies have joined OGP for the first of two main conference days.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the make-up of today’s audience, it wasn’t long before the topic of the role of the state in open government and open data raised its head. Typically, governments are involved in the supply of open data through data portals and proactive disclosure. But when it comes to use of open data, many governments take a noticeable step back, arguing that use and demand for the data is the purview of private sector organisations and civil society. In some countries, that isn’t too worrying, as there’s a community of organisations and individuals with the necessary skills and know-how to use open data for social change, for profit and a whole host of other reasons. But in many countries, the lack of such a community presents a real problem. Without a community of users and with limited commitment from government to really pushing the use of open data, it’s easy to see how open government commitments could easily backslide. After all, commitment to open government is a political commitment and it’s not unreasonable to expect such a commitment to wax and wane with the times. If governments are genuinely committed to open government and open data, then, there needs to be an equal commitment to promoting the use of that data and information. Government cannot merely see its role beginning and ending with the publication of data. Where necessary, it must also take reasonable steps to ensure that it thinks of users and supports civil society – however fledgling – to use open data and the benefits of open government.
OGP or OSP? A reasonable question is whether the Open Government Partnership puts too much emphasis on government (and often central government at that). Central government represents only a fraction of the public officials that are elected. Opposition parties, mayors, police commissioners, local councillors, MEPs – all are elected officials that should be accountable and included. One proposition, therefore, was to change the OGP to the OSP – the Open State or Society Partnership. Rather than a relatively narrow focus on top-level commitments, the remit of open government must extend well beyond the role of central government.
Despite a great deal of discussion and debate about the appropriate size and role of the state and the very different political views that can be found on it, it is clear that for OGP the state both does and should have a very important role. Clearly, that must not be to the exclusion of others; whether citizens, NGOs or the private sector. And nor must we employ a narrow definition of the state as lazy shorthand for ‘government’, for such a move relegates all other elected bodies and organisations in receipt of public funds to a minor, less accountable role.