7 Tips for Russia, For All of Us

Active community participation is a phrase at the core of “open government”, at least that’s what most countries are putting near the top of their priority lists in their open government initiatives.  In Russia’s Open Government Plan, it’s at the top of their list, citing “involvement of society in decision-making process.”  Based on their draft of their plan to achieve their goals, I believe there are some other countries pursuing similar goals which can help guide Russia’s plans.  Moreso, these ideas and projects that are being taken on can and should be looked at and considered by everyone.  A good idea is a good idea, no matter what country. 

For those following along at home, you can find the initiatives referenced below here – http://www.opengovpartnership.org/countries.  It’s worth taking some time to play around on the site anyway, see what everyone else is doing.  I’ve numbered these ideas in order, but also in parenthesis the action item from Russia’s draft plan.

(1) 1.  Russian Public Initiative – Make sure the whole process is transparent and accessible.  Not just the selection process, but who’s working on what, tracking the progress from beginning to end.  If its budgetary or legislative, let the people see where their proposal is at all times, and give them the opportunity to interact with the agents who are currently handling the project, wherever it may be.  This could be in the form of an online tracking system, with direct links to emails and phone numbers of the government agency overseeing that particular process. 

Or maybe there’s even a more low tech solution.  From Tanzania’s Transparency efforts — “Establishment of public complaints desks in Central and Local Governments. These desks are handled by focal persons appointed by Institutional Chief Executives to receive complaints from the public regarding service delivery, take appropriate action and provide feedback to the public.”  Russia could host “update” desks, where part of their function is to make available updates on any ongoing process.  This could serve as a “low tech” alternative for those still catching up to technology.   

(2) 2.  System of Information Disclosure – an online government manual:  legislation is hard enough to understand and follow even for the legislators, don’t muck up the process for citizens.  “A system for information disclosure” sounds like it could be a basic manual that people could access, describing the processes a bill is going through.  It can be as watered down as an old School House Rock (not sure this reference will carry over in Russian) video, but something that could simply explain in laymen’s terms what’s happening would allow the general public to engage more thoroughly in the process.   

Much like the Transparency Portal Brazil has undertaken – “The Portal provides online information on the execution of the federal budget in clear and understandable language without requiring usernames or passwords to access the pertinent information and data. As of 2010, the Transparency Portal is updated daily, meaning that all of the expenditures executed on a given day are published and available for consultation by Brazilian citizens the following morning.” 

(3) 4.  Non-Profit Sector – In October 2010, Greece launched Labs.OpenGov, “a new experimental attempt in engaging corporate and non-corporate users into generating sophisticated and immediately applicable ideas for crowd-sourced policy making in the field of ICT. It is an open innovations web laboratory that brings together experts from the technological community and institutions that manage information technology projects for the public sector and citizens.”   The interactions between non profits, the public, and the govt. is a crucial development. 

Can the NFP world be a voice for the people?  Is that what the NFP wants?  Is that what’s best for the people?  Strengthening the bond between public service organizations and people is a great task, especially when referring to containing and collecting data.  Who collects the data and who stores it are two crucial questions when regarding data, and local non profits have the ability to assist in both those areas. 

(4) 5.  Control over Execution – “Fulfilling of control over their execution” is a loaded phrase.  Will people be allowed to work on a project directly?  Oversee its management?  Involving people in a project can be a great community growth exercise, if done well.  A project which involves infrastructure in a given community, such as construction of a playground or community garden, would be improved if the community was involved.  Tanzania’s Citizen Participation section, “formulation and approval of Local Government budgets through a participatory approach known as “Opportunities and Obstacles to Development” (O&OD).The approach allows villages to prepare plans and budgets and submit them to the higher LGA level for inclusion in the Council‟s plans and budgets.”  Bringing the government out of the realm of the intangible and into the world of touching and planting raises the level of connection between people and the government. 

(5) 8.1.  Public Surveys – In Uganda, a program, “UReport” – http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/uganda_62001.html – is a great example of creating public surveys for the government to gather information directly from the citizens.  The basic concept is that questions are posed and people can send in their answers via SMS.  The data is then collected around various issues and published publicly.  I think it’s important here to let people bring up the issues and the questions surveyed. 

(6) 9.2.  Information Database – A mass available set of public sector data is a great thing.  But why not make it interactive!  Just seeing the data is one thing, but being able to do something with it is another.  Can it link to a newspaper to report suspicious filings?  Reporters can play an intriguing role in the sense that they can add the accountability factor that the government needs to be held against.  Politically these days, reporters often carry more of a threat than citizens do, so giving a citizen that direct contact will a) empower them to search critically, and b) put politicians on edge.  For example, in Kenya a local newspaper recently launched a citizen reporting app – http://www.humanipo.com/news/1610/Kenyan-newspaper-unveils-citizen-reporting-app – which allows people to report any kind of news directly to the paper.  While this type of technology would need to be monitored for legitimization, the concept could be applied to root out government corruption and empower the citizens directly. 

(7) 23.  Training Program – If we’re looking to develop a new group of public servants with a specialty in open government, why not start with programs in lower education?  Middle schools and high schools can integrate open government curriculums.  After high school, programs could be offered which counted for college credit.  Even further, people could be recruited into programs and the government could supplement part of their higher education.  Much like the US Army operates, a recently graduated high school student could serve as part of an open government program for anywhere between 2-3 years and the government could pay for part of their college education.

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I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (pt. 6)

Ideas

Rather than further blind cooperation, I have begun to draw out some solutions to these issues.  The solution cannot be easy.  Deep-rooted systematic issues never are.  However if we approach the problems holistically, if we can break down the issues piece by piece, at the very least you can begin a discussion of why I’m wrong.

1.  Education:  Allow me to take a moment and stop pointing fingers all over the place and take a step back.  Awareness and participation are both essential, but without the institutional framework; the process will surely break down.  Early in educational programming, in elementary schools, middle schools, night schools, correctional facilities, summer camps, we should teach basic government concepts.  What taxes are, where they go, what they do, growing and expanding on process, and most importantly where you, the citizen, fits into that process.  People should feel a necessary part of the system, not the outsider who only feels the negative effects of the system.  Seeing as how government is built on the people, we should emphasize the necessity of their role.  Without a constituency a politician would be a crazy person standing on a soapbox yelling about health care.  The people are the oft-neglected piece of the system, mainly so those in power can wield more power over them.  An informed people will at least have the ability to argue back.  Empower the people, and empowerment begins with education.

2.  Disclosure:  If I give my room mate 10 dollars to buy a carton of milk, I don’t necessarily need to know what store he went to, what his interaction with the cashier was like, how many cartons he sifted through to find the furthest expiration date.  But I would like to see the carton of milk.  I would like to have my change.  If necessary, I might even want to see the receipt.  Why don’t we hold our politicians to the same relatively low standard?  Show us where the money goes and what it does when it gets there.  The release of information is such an easy way to establish trust, it makes me wary of anyone holding back.  We don’t need to see how you make the sausages, but at least let us see how you’re spending our money.

3.  Oversight Entity:  Looking at these issues from the perspective of politicians, a perspective we should not forget or ignore, the increase in sheer magnitude of added administrative work to accomplish some of these tasks would halt their abilities to function day to day.  An independent body, an agency, an organization, whose sole purpose was to administer and oversee the discretionary budgeting process is what we should rely on.  Devoid of politics, absent of corruption.  The physical and social infrastructure for such a body exists in various pieces around the City.  The IBO (Independent Budget Office) releases reports on various city programming.  The NYC Comptroller’s Office conducts and releases audits of city agencies and their programs.  Citizens Union is a non profit good government group which rates and studies city politicians and their actions.  There are multitudes of political clubs across the City, which claim to stand for reform and progress in local government.  Each of these groups and entities, and many more unmentioned, have the capacity to build an active coalition.  Each group must set aside personal ego and be willing to be a part of the solution, rather than continuously complain about the problem.  Don’t let the politicians use lack of administrative resources, as legitimate as it is, as their excuse.

Maybe it wouldn’t even be such a bad idea to publicly tar and feather Larry Seabrook or Carl Kruger or Vito Lopez.  An oversight entity can help ongoing investigations to root out current corruption.  We should not act as though with only oversight that crime will cease.  Those who we have caught, who have been rooted out as criminals should serve as an example to those thinking about a life of crime.  I would never recommend a beheading and sticking someone’s head on a stake, but then again I don’t live in Larry Seabrook’s district.

4.  Restructure Process Top Down:  If the process of discretionary funding is transparent and the community is engaged, until we reform the system from the beginning, not much will change.  We still have the power of one Councilmember deciding the fate of millions of taxpayer dollars.  I will not claim to have the best and most equitable distribution formula, but I do know that it should not be in the sole possession of one person’s political discretion.  Whatever the formula is – socioeconomic status, population, a measure of need, highest percentage of adorable puppies – it should be discussed and debated publicly and never left open to the powers of political patronage.  Even in a perfect world with an incorruptible Speaker, with 51 honest and dedicated Councilmembers, let us all agree to never allow the potential for corruption in the first place.  Cut off corruption at the top and maybe, just maybe, honesty will trickle down.

5.  Civic Revolution/Malleable Revolution/Revolution 2.0:  I certainly to not advocate for a violent revolution of any sort, filled with protests and gas masks and riots.  Revolutions can come in all shapes and sizes, and maybe what we need more is an interventional revolution, or a revolutionary intervention.  We don’t need pitchforks and torches, we need sound arguments and pragmatic solutions.  The will and desire is already running through the people of New York, both the politicians and the citizenry.  What are we all waiting for?  Let’s decide that it’s not acceptable to take our money and give it to your niece.  Let’s decide that it’s not acceptable to allocate funding to districts whose representatives have done you political favors.  Let’s decide that we deserve a voice in the process, somewhere.

Take it upon yourself to begin a conversation with someone, anyone.  Change the public discourse, change the participants in the conversation.  We are rarely presented with the decision of right versus wrong.  More often than not we are faced with the decision to act or to do nothing.  Chose right, chose wrong, but chose something.  Never ignore your ability to act.  This is the true nature of democracy.  This is what we must strive towards.  And we should not settle for anything less, anything apathetic, anything devoid of participation.  The status quo is not meant to be accepted, it is meant to be challenged.  Some people set the bar low and think “I can clear that easily”; others see the low bar and think “how can I raise it?”  What you chose is not the most crucial piece, rather the debate is where progress lies.  Involve people around you, the people you represent in the decision and you are a true shepherd of democracy.

If it’s so easy to identify the problem, why is it still so easy to steal our allowance right from our pockets?

The Words We Use

As we try to define and materialize the phrase “open government” the rhetoric we use can be just as critical as the ideas we generate.  In general, I’ve found a distinct “us” and “them” feeling around the way ‘open government’ is talked about, as opposed to the “we” I believe is at its core.

Even in President Obama’s memo “Transparency and Open Government” – which is a tremendous step in the direction of collaboration and openness – has a tinge of separation between government and its people:  “Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their government…”  instead of we can learn together.

Through the powers of social media, now more than ever people’s voices are being heard.  How we hear those voices, who’s listening, and what they’re doing when they hear it, these are the issues we’re facing now.  When we’re looking at these issues, it’s important to remember that we need to keep everyone on the same level.  An “us” and “them” mentality won’t work.  Together we can solve the problems, together we can discuss the problems, together we can open up to new solutions.

I hope that through this blog, my colleagues and I can alter the rhetoric, expand the participants in the discourse, inspire action around the idea of an open government.

–  I will be blogging here on as well: http://gov30.typepad.com/crowdlaw/