open government: the one innovation we’re missing

NGOs, activists, international organisations all design and produce more and more innovative tools to empower citizens and equip them with whatever they may need to voice their needs, concerns, and opinions about issues that matter to them most (or least, for that matter).

From FixMyStreettype of websites, through government monitoring tools, to new communication channels between citizens and their representatives – new technologies help people get more and more empowered and educated about their rights (less often is there a need to educate people about their responsibilities — with this part most of the systems deal pretty smoothly).

And this is all fantastic! I am personally very excited about the ever more lively grassroots initiatives that are solving important problems quickly and effectively. There is, however, one problem that, to my mind, has not yet received enough attention… and that is empowering the decision makers.

Do not laugh! I’m dead serious about it!

My awesome colleague, Millica Begovic has written recently a great blog post entitled “Open data, open policy: stepping out of the echo chamber,” in which she aptly enlists the issues that we seem to be missing in our discussions about open data and open government. Millie writes [just had to resist the temptation of copying the entire blog post…]:

There is no question about civic hacking contribution to democracy, innovation, empowerment, development, and engagement (and in case you do question it, read 10 ways civic hacking is good for cities). But these solutions need their institutional home – they need someone to roll it out, engage with users, iterate and improve.

If these guys (representing institutions of the system) aren’t around from the beginning, we could hardly expect them to recognize signals from the noise, let alone take ownership. And in some cases, there is outright resentment of desperate policy makers faced with proliferation of tech solutions that aren’t built on a solid institutional base (especially if there may be a non-technical solution to the issue, prompting the growth of ‘unhackathon’ events in some cities).

And despite (or rather because of) the fact that, to my mind, Millie is right, there is a part of me that understands these guys not being around from the very beginning. Think about it. If you were a decision maker in your country (say: Poland – 38 mln ppl) and honestly wanted to contribute to bridging the gap between the citizens and the government, you would need:

  • time – it’d consume a huge chunk of your time only to keep track of what is out there (there’s really a lot going on and often most innovative and effective things come from the least obvious suspects);
  • adequate knowledge (wisdom, dare I say) to filter the most promising ideas, and then
  • the institutional and financial capacity to test them and implement the best one(s).

This could all be done, given your strong belief in and a thorough understanding of this type of approach (otherwise you’d grow frustrated and withdraw after a month).

Now, in a less idealistic version of reality, more often than not the described above is not the case and in order to be motivated and carry on getting closer and closer to citizens (painful and cumbersome), you would need to see a relatively high and highly likely payback to your efforts (reelection, better results and press, higher position, etc. – for the record – I’ve nothing against that).

That’s quite many conditions, don’t you think?

And it’s not about being good or bad. To me, it’s about being human, as we all are. Our recent workshops with the UK gov’s Nudge Unit (awesome people doing awesome work!) were a huge inspiration for me in terms of looking at ourselves in a less, dare I say, idealized way. True, many of us strive to be better, but we would be on the safe side assuming that these striving ones are not the default. In other words:

  • We tend to have the status quo bias.
  • We tend to fall for things that bring quick benefits that we can easily enjoy.
  • We are not two different kinds – those choosing their representatives and those chosen (you’ll find those going beyond their call of duty as well as free-riders in both groups).

Coming from here, I believe that the innovations that we’re missing are the ones that would empower decision makers and nudge them to get closer to citizens. What do you think?

Any examples of innovative tools empowering decision makers or local officials?

Any ideas for these?

How about we organize a hackathon for decision makers? :)


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