Better use of technology could lead to more open government
Across the world, technology has transformed the relationship between consumers and businesses. The unprecedented opportunities it provides to easily and instantly connect with each other and with information is changing the way we communicate, how we do business and how we live our lives. By putting power in the hands of billions of consumers, prices have fallen and the choice and quality of goods and services have improved dramatically. Businesses, too, are gaining through the chance to know their customers better, strengthening relationships, building trust and increasing sales.
But while individuals as consumers are already reaping these benefits, as citizens they have yet to see the same improvements. Governments have often been slow to see the advantages that openness and dialogue brings for their countries. Some, to be frank, remain suspicious of the power it might hand to individuals and communities.
Slowly but surely we are seeing this change. Last year, we saw a small number of governments including the United Kingdom join the Open Government Partnership to promote openness and improved engagement with their citizens. The efforts of this partnership were stepped up at a recent conference attended by Hillary Clinton and Francis Maude and hosted by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. The conference saw 43 new countries join and announce their plans to increase government transparency, openness and accountability.
The initiative is still in its early days. But by improving accountability and transparency, it has rich potential to improve public services, ensure money is spent wisely and break down the barriers between the government and the governed. At a time when this divide has never seemed bigger in many countries and when public finances are tight, these are goals of crucial importance.
Countries that sign up to the partnership have to demonstrate their commitment to open government. Each has set out their plans on how more information will be made available to citizens, how genuine engagement will be encouraged and how this dialogue will help drive social change. These action plans include innovative public accountability mechanisms, the creation of open data portals, new legal and institutional mechanisms and the introduction of e-petitions to collect and respond to citizens’ needs more effectively.
Having seen first-hand what can be achieved if we can better connect people, I am excited by its potential to deliver positive change. The success of eBay, created by my firm’s founder Pierre Omidyar, was based on confidence in people and creating a network to enable them to come together. Many millions of consumers have gained from sharing their passions and interests. Consumers have gained from sharing their passions and interests. Many thousands of new businesses have been able to compete on a level playing field, challenging the dominance of established players.
Technology gives us, on a scale and speed never possible before, the opportunity to magnify the power of every individual. There will always be some who might abuse this opportunity. But our experience at eBay is that the overwhelming majority use this power responsibly. We must have the confidence to harness this ability to give people a voice. If we do, the rewards will be enormous.
Governments that tap into the collective expertise and experience of their citizens will make better decisions. Increased transparency, participation and accountability will increase protection against corruption.
By using technology to empower individuals, they will enable them to influence policies and priorities at a national and community level. This in turn will raise ambitions and increase interest and participation in public life.
Through the Open Government Partnership, citizens are trusted to help strengthen their countries. But using the opportunities to share information that technology brings is only one half of the equation. We will only fully reap all these rewards if citizens, civil society and businesses use this information to monitor progress, hold those making decisions to account and, where needed, encourage change. Transparency is vital but so, too, is the active engagement and participation of citizens.
It is vitally important, too, that we work at both a national and local level to help provide the skills and tools to use this data and the opportunities it brings to make a positive impact on lives and communities. This means developing the tools and partnerships that make this new era of active citizen engagement a reality. It is something our organisation, Omidyar Network, which encourages the use of technology and markets to foster social change, is already supporting in many countries.
We are already seeing examples of what can be achieved and the difference it can make. In the UK, for instance, Omidyar Network supports the work of mySociety, which uses the power of the web to help people become more powerful in civic and democratic life with websites such as theyworkforyou.com and fixmystreet.com.
But this is only the beginning. The ability to encourage honest and responsive governments and to allow citizens and communities to shape rather than simply accept the services they receive holds great potential. We have seen a revolution in the way businesses and consumers interact. If we can harness the same power to improve standards of governance, we can help create jobs, strengthen societies and transform the quality of life of millions of people.
Stephen King is a partner at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm started by eBay Founder Pierre Omidyar.Tagged in: abroad, Dilma Rousseff, fixmystreet.com, francis maude, government, Hillary Clinton, king, mysociety, omidyar, open government, Open Government Partnership, quality of life, stephen king, technology, the Open Government Partnership, theyworkforyou.com, uk
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