By Steven McGinty
Last year, a poll by Ipsos Mori found that only 16% of the British public trust politicians to tell the truth. Although scepticism is healthy for a democracy, these figures are significantly lower than in 1986, when 38% of the public trusted MPs “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party”
The British Social Attitudes survey attributes this decline in public confidence to the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. However, a more general dissatisfaction with institutions (the media, the police, and financial institutions) – who have all had their own scandals – may also be a factor.
With this decline in trust, it’s not too surprising that the British public are calling for greater transparency and more ‘open government’.
What is open government?
According to Professor Beth Simone Noveck’s book, ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing’, open government involves moving away from a ‘closed-door model’ of governance to one where government institutions connect with people and organisations from a diverse range of backgrounds. This includes citizens, academics, voluntary organisations and the commercial sector.
Examples of citizen involvement
The commercial sector has already benefited from greater citizen involvement. For instance, Facebook, which relies heavily on its 1.44 billion monthly users to generate content, is valued at over $300 billion. This is three or four times more than traditional US media companies such as CBS and Viacom. Netflix, a global streaming service for movies and TV series, also sought to benefit from outside talent by offering a million dollars to researchers who could improve their ability to make recommendations for their subscribers.
However, it’s not just about the commercial sector. Galaxy Zoo, an online citizen science project, has been very successful thanks to its pool of ‘citizen scientists’, who help translate raw information into useful scientific knowledge. In its first year, the project created 50 million ‘classifications’. To date, the project has published 48 articles using the data classified by volunteers.
Benefits of open government
In her book, Professor Noveck includes an example of how government might reduce reoffending. She explains that to initially understand the problem data scientists are required to interpret the data. Legal scholars, practitioners and victims’ groups are also needed to help understand the practical realities of the criminal justice system. Using this scenario, she describes how professionals, such as psychologists and social scientists could design pilot projects to reduce reoffending.
Professor Noveck argues that increasing openness could provide greater insights and a more legitimate form of government. She suggests that open government has the potential to restore trust in public institutions.
Failure of open government
In 2010, the Coalition Government consulted the public on its programme for government. The website received a total of 9,500 official responses; although no government policies were changed as a result.
At the time, The Guardian described this as a failure, and Simon Burall, Director of Involve, a group advising bodies on consultation, warned that
“You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all. They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again.”
Although a proponent for more open governance, Professor Noveck concedes that government initiatives to involve citizens, like the one introduced by the previous UK government, have failed. She claims that the ad-hoc nature of these programmes and the long standing culture of closed-door practices present major barriers.
Therefore, Professor Noveck advocates a move towards, what she calls, ‘smarter governance’. In essence, this means that institutions should look to target and match specific people with the right opportunities – which is now possible thanks to ‘technologies of expertise’. Well known platforms such as LinkedIn allow individuals to be found based on their particular skills. And online learning platforms such as the Khan Academy provide ‘badges’ to indicate the mastery of skills.
In the UK, the app GoodSAM, which evolved from London’s Air Ambulance service, is designed to alert approved medical professionals when an emergency is nearby, so that potentially lifesaving treatment can be administered.
In the US, the New York Police department maintains a database of its employees’ abilities, ranging from language skills to hobbies, such as yoga or beekeeping. The department takes the tasks of collating skills very seriously, with all new recruits completing a form as part of the human resources process. Having this knowledge allows senior officers to make better use of their staff abilities, and provide a better service.
Conclusions – “More Minecraft, less statecraft”
Professor Noveck concludes her book by calling for positive steps to ensure that institutions not only listen to advisory boards and formal committees, but also include the citizen experience and wider expertise. She recommends that there should be a diverse range of conversations between government and its citizens, and that reinventing the processes of decision making should be a matter of urgency.
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