This article is written by Camilo Cetina, Executive in charge of integrity initiatives in digital innovation in government at the Development Bank of Latin America.
“Every cloud has a silver lining”.
Latin America is currently undergoing an unprecedented wave of populism, political polarisation and fragmentation in society. Worryingly, these forces threaten to undermine the willingness of citizens and business to engage with public policies.
Latino Barometro, a region-wide annual public opinion survey, has been sending warnings underpinned by hard data for the last 10 years: Only a meagre 21% to 24% of Latin American citizens trust their governments, parliaments and judiciary. The rampant corruption exposed by the Lava Jato and Odebrecht cases are not likely to boost citizens´ trust.
But despite this unpromising context, a number of LACs are adhering themselves to global initiatives, that promote accountability, access to public information, citizen engagement, transparency; and that rely strongly on open data and information technologies.
Since 2013 LACs are going through an unprecedented wave in the adoption of open information across public institutions. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is setting a new tone in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay and most of Central America. Access to information laws are now becoming the norm in LACs: citizens are fully entitled to both request and receive information from governments. Procurement processes are being run (or at least published) over electronic platforms easily accessible, through centralized agencies that make governments ́ purchases more efficient and transparent.
States, rather than Governments
How can LACs gain genuine trust in their public institutions?
A potential answer could be to use a combination of technology and openness to create an Open State. Countries that pledge to OGP commitments adopt action plans in four core areas: access to information, civic participation, integrity, and access to technology to support accountability. But the implementation of such plans has jurisdiction mostly on the executive branch and its processes (planning, budgeting, contracting, implementing, providing public goods/services). The Legislative, the Judiciary, the electoral authorities as well as external controlling institutions will be obliged to share the same standards and methods in an Open State. Hence, Open State is an extension of the OGP principles to the State’s levels and branches of power.
There are several thriving global and independent initiatives that can serve as inspiration, such as OpeningParliament.org, which promotes openness across countries’ legislative institutions by helping connect civic organizations engaged in monitoring, supporting and opening up their countries’ legislative institutions. The GovLab is an American think-tank that trains public officers in Open Justice, which is a principle widely adopted in Commonwealth countries and is gaining traction in Argentina and Colombia. Prosecuting and controlling authorities still lack wide forums to adopt (or even discuss) standards towards openness. Overall, the few open state initiatives need a bigger push to be adopted in LACs; but to do so, they need to overcome some digital challenges.
Data favours the bold
An Open State mindset is about thinking beyond the monopoly of power to respond to citizens’ demands, while enabling tools — for example open data — to solve public problems with inclusiveness and collaboration. Open States need to identify high-value, high-impact information for the public and assure data quality in terms of accuracy, consistency, and timeliness.
Take the Open Justice case: having access to databases on judiciary decisions, on judges’ appointments or on the mechanics to distribute cases across courthouses would contribute to make courts not only more accountable to their decisions, but it would help improve their performance. Imagine that you could combine this data with budget information and find solutions to make courthouses faster and more efficient.
The different branches of government need to share the same, common standards of open data. Otherwise, the potential of openness will never be fulfilled.
An outstanding effort in this direction is being led by the Open Data Charter (ODC) whose standard of 30 datasets to combat corruption, are built with an expectation of coordination from all branches of power to disclose information open by default. CAF-Development Bank for Latin America, will soon cooperate with Ecuador and Colombia to adopt ODC standards, which are being supported by Organization of the American States (OAS) through a unique, tailored program that Mexico has already adopted.
While this is promising, ODC still has a long way to go not least because they are working to promote openness and standardization in a world of data silos, but also because it’s contingent on their ability to get senior public servants on board, who, in some cases, have yet to understand the necessity and importance of this approach.
Knowledge is power, if we know how to use it
Innovation and co-creation are practices at the core of an Open State.
Designing, implementing, and assessing policies, laws, and major public decisions are tasks in which decision-makers from different branches of government should collaborate — and in which civil society, academia and the private sector should have a say. New technology and data enable innovation and collaboration in a practical way, but it relies on people that know how to use it. For instance, a few months ago, the Comptroller General (CG) of Colombia used a data lake (made up of datasets, which had been ignored by everybody) to find a number of public contracts whose contractors were deceased by the time such public procurement processes began.
Indeed, one of the agencies that was indicted was — ironically — the National Civil Registry (NCR), which is the government agency supposed to collect and store vital identification records of every Colombian citizen — death included. Prosecutions have been quickly set in motion in this case and the NCR has purged both staff and registries to the extent that NCR is now sending data-based reports on potential electoral frauds in sub-national elections, taking place in October.
However, Colombia’s CG´s knowledge and capacities are the exceptions rather than the norm amongst public officers, according to a seminal Data & Policy paper. Understanding the potential of the collective use of data for creating value and developing solutions to public problems is still a challenge to enable Open States.
Ministering the truth
The public sector is lagging well behind the business sector in its use of data methods and digital technologies to understand people´s needs. Open States could close this gap, to influence the ability of citizens to make civic decisions.
Now that social media gives voice to people, thus bypassing intermediaries to influence public opinion, and misinformation is thriving, potentially putting us at risk of democracy becoming compromised, Open States have a big field to conquer. They need to take advantage of this opportunity to reach their own citizens and engage them in a conversation about public policies and decisions. Recovering the trust of citizens is a long journey, but that’s no excuse for not taking the first step. – Camilo Cetina
(Picture credit: Pixabay)