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8/5/2014 Open Government Partnership should foster accountability and social justice | Jonathan Gray | Global development | theguardian

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David Cameron at the Open Government Partnership summit, where he promised to target hidden company
ownership. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Senior government officials and campaigners from about 60 countries gathered in
London last week for the second annual summit of the Open Government Partnership
(OGP). Voluntary commitments were announced on increased political transparency,
and talks planned about freedom of information, civic participation, whistleblower
protection and corporate accountability.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, opened the event with an announcement
that the UK would crack down on hidden company ownership – a move widely
celebrated by transparency, anti-corruption and tax justice campaigners.
Open Government Partnership should
foster accountability and social justice
Intended to meet the needs of citizens, the movement has come
to embody digital rather than political openness
8/5/2014 Open Government Partnership should foster accountability and social justice | Jonathan Gray | Global development | 2/4
Elaborate networks of shell companies are often used for illicit and unethical activities
including arms trafficking, terrorist financing, illegal tax evasion and aggressive tax
avoidance. Making the true owners of companies part of the public record will enable
journalists, campaigners and others outside government to expose these dark
networks and the money that flows through them.
Cameron emphasised the importance of open government for economic growth and
innovation. Alluding to the work of Amartya Sen, he contended that open governments
were conducive to economic prosperity, whereas "closed governments breed poverty".
The prime minister's speech typified a broader trend in open government discourse,
away from political accountability and social justice and towards economic growth,
digital innovation and supporting startups. In recent years, senior officials from the US
and the UK have referred to a trinity of open governments, open societies, and open
economies, as well as to the potential of digital technologies and digital information
for innovative new businesses and growth.
But what is open government really about? Last year, two researchers at Princeton
wrote a paper about the increasing ambiguity of the phrase. They said that while it
once carried a "hard political edge", referring to "politically sensitive disclosures of
government information" advocated by transparency and accountability campaigners,
it is increasingly applied to technologies for sharing information and politically neutral
regimes of disclosure, which allow even the most draconian and regressive of
governments to describe themselves as open.
In other words, the researchers argued, open government advocates risk conflating
technological and political openness, as though the accessibility and usability of
information, software, standards, and the digital architecture of government were no
different to the openness of official institutions and processes.
Governments are often more comfortable highlighting plans to "go digital", or to
enable new businesses by opening up official data, but transparency advocates should
not be distracted from their mission to enable citizens to hold power to account.
Perhaps the issue is partly that open government is increasingly considered a tool for
transforming inputs into the desired outputs, without regard for who is using it and
Cameron's government, for example, has cannily steered the domestic transparency
agenda to support its politics of austerity, encouraging citizens to "join the hunt for
government savings" and "root out waste" – perhaps not a priority for local citizen
groups fighting to protect frontline public services.
Surely what matters is not openness per se, but how this openness is used to improve
8/5/2014 Open Government Partnership should foster accountability and social justice | Jonathan Gray | Global development | 3/4
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the lives of citizens by reducing inequality and poverty, tackling corruption and
injustice, increasing access to education and healthcare, mitigating the effects of
climate change, and so on.
Open government talks would benefit from being less procedural and more
substantive, highlighting issues rather than instruments, values rather than processes,
and engaging more fully with citizens and campaigners – who usually have little say in
forming open government policy – about the transparency and accountability
challenges they face.
Potentially an invaluable mechanism for citizens and civil society groups to engage
with the civil servants and state officials who represent them, the OGP could facilitate
frank discussions about their aspirations and concerns in an impartial, extra-national
context. But for this to happen, the OGP must focus on being more responsive to the
needs of citizens, rather than being sidetracked by commercial opportunity or digital
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