The Instituto Electoral y de Participación Ciudadana de Jalisco (Mexico) along with UNDP released an English version of their report on “Technology and Citizen Particpation in the Construction of Democracy. The report includes eleven essays and case studies regarding technology’s capacity to improve citizens’ level of democratic engagement, and the resulting improvements in government. Ravneet Singh notes that recent history has been defined by a boom in technology—including growing internet penetration rates, increasing broadband coverage and the rise of social networks—and a simultaneous decline in citizens’ interest and engagement in democratic politics. Not surprisingly, many recognized that these concurrent trends pose an opportunity. The authors find that whether studying e-democracy initiatives, electronic voting, improved collaborative capabilities through mobile or social media-aided digital activism, technology, while not the solution to government’s failings in its own right, is increasingly acting as a medium between citizens and their elected officials.
Exploring perhaps the most talked about current example of technology in government, Jorge Soto’s “Open Government: A New Panorama for Governance” hits on many of the familiar advantages of the open government movement: increased transparency, improved decision making, increased service quality and the potential for new innovations, among others. While Soto is certainly supportive of all of these open government aims, he, like the other authors in the publication, considers technology to be less a means of directly improving government workings and more of a path to increasing citizens’ participation and collaboration. Once technology helps these citizens to become engaged and empowered, they have the capacity to effect positive change in their government. Both the release of open government data (OGD) and the crowdsourcing of policy “establish a more efficient dialogue” and “work as a medium” between government and the general public. According to Soto, open government is about much more than transparency; it is about inviting “the public to form part of the governing process, by making their political capacities effective.” To do this, Soto, like Tim O’Reilly, believes that “governments must focus on becoming platforms and creating developer ecosystems.”
The new engaged, collaborative communities created through open government are not, however, exclusively made up of government, developers and individual constituents. Soto believes that open government can build bridges between government, civil society and citizens from diverse disciplines. While the creation of new and innovative applications through the use of OGD is undoubtedly beneficial, newly built communities of people from a number of areas and fields of knowledge working with the government to address societal problems will likely have even greater long-term benefits. After the government releases data, a variety of people are needed to make the most of that data. Communities are built through OGD by utilizing people “from the technical field to extract and manipulate data, from the social or journalistic field to identify their relevance and from the graphic field to create easily-understood visualizations.” While informing the public and creating innovative applications are undoubtedly noble results of these collaborations, the collaborations themselves are perhaps the most important byproduct of the system.
Interestingly, while still recognizing the potential of crowdsourcing and the dissemination of OGD to address governmental blindspots, Soto calls for a more strategic, targeted form of open government. He argues that, “data have to be used to satisfy projects or carry out specific actions and to create communications with shared experiences that encourage participation.” That is not to say that governments should only release data for which there is an immediate need, but Soto is clearly advocating a greater role for government than simply making all of its public data available in machine-readable formats. Not surprisingly, this goes back to Soto’s main theme: creating participation and community through open government. Adoption, he argues, is driven by simplicity and responding to real user needs and societal problems. There will, no doubt, always be a dedicated few interested in mining endless streams of OGD in the interest of creating something innovative, but to create communities of engaged citizens, industries and NGOs, OGD must recognize societal needs and opportunities, and supply the information necessary for the public to respond to them.