Open Government, Open Data: #OGT14

 

Inspired by the TEDx talk  ‘The Antidode to Apathy” by Dave Meslin from Toronto about civic engagement, Richard Pietro - a curious French-Canadian wanting to bring about change - set out on an incredible journey across Canada on his motorbike to promote the ideas associated with open government and open data. He is not a public servant nor a politician but simply an ordinary citizen with a lot of spirit, creative mind and a desire to improve the way citizens engage with their governments.

Two words from Dave’s presentation lit a light bulb of curiosity in Richard’s head and subsequently fuelled the engines of the ‘Open Government Tour 2014’ motorbike: “intentional exclusion.” These were a result of a comparative analogy Dave had used to shed some light on the inaccuracy of reasons given for civic disengagement and absence of active involvement in governance. Having shown the audience what Nike’s advertisements would look like if they were using the marketing strategies of most municipal governments, it became clear to Richard that apathy and laziness are not the reasons why people don’t want to get involved in their governments’ decision-making process. It is the way information is being presented to them, or rather hidden from them in most cases, that more often than not discourages participation. In Richard’s view, and increasingly the views of many others, open governments and open data are an effective way to rectify the situation.

To understand open government and explore the backstage of Richard’s tour across the country, it is crucial to realize that open government is not to be equated with politics and politicians. In fact, the buzzword we are looking for is governance, the way processes are established, people held accountable, and stakeholders consulted. Looking at open government from this perspective, Richard in his stimulating presentation introduced the triangle of conversation that needs to exist in order for the ideas behind open government to materialize: ‘public service, citizens, and technologists’.

I remember a paper I wrote on participatory democracy in graduate school. It contained the following definition: “Governance is a dialogue between those who govern and those who are governed.” Richard did not state so explicitly, but I think he used the same kind of idea when articulating the concept of the triangle of conversation. Public servants are those who govern or represent the policies developed by the governing group and the citizens are those who are governed. Moreover, Richard built on my very simple and cliché-like spectrum of actors by adding another actor to the equation: the technologists who become the enablers of the conversation, enablers of governance. At last, our three stakeholders have the means to develop a common language and start learning from and with each other.

When you present civic engagement in the way Richard did - by showing a video of the Governance Spaceship with all the agents on board equipped with the same goal or one in which Open Government and Open Data are the Daft Punk of Government – it becomes less of a chore or punishment and more of an enjoyable responsibility and tool of empowerment.