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While I was working in Kenya, one of the key issues that was discussed, particularly in post-conflict countries, was the need for good governance. And one of the main ‘pillars’ of good governance is having an open and transparent government. That is quite a broad concept – it clearly is a response to the fact that many governments in developing nations struggle with issues of political and administrative corruption. (Don’t worry, it happens in Canada too).

Governmental openness and transparency are uni-directional ideas – the major point is to allow an individual as much access to information about the government (particularly with respect to how it spends money and behaves); at the same time, it does not justify the government openly getting information about individuals (i.e. blanket surveillance). Or, at least, I haven’t been given any particularly good arguments why a Government ought to be able to put its population under blanket surveillance. Intelligence for National Security purposes should be just that, intelligent. But the problem is that, when you’ve got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Where surveillance happens, it starts to seem like there are more and more people that need to be watched.

That is where these broad concepts of ‘Openness’, ‘Transparency’, and ‘Accountability’ come in. The idea behind open governance and transparency is to promote accountability, to promote informed decision-making of the citizenry, and to ensure the possibility of checks and balances. And hopefully, in some cases, to ensure Democracy.

Often, the main focus of discussions about transparency and openness revolve around the problem of corruption. Corruption is a central, critical problem in today’s interconnected world. If you want to know more about corruption issues, I highly recommend you look at anything published by Transparency International – the main international NGO focusing on fighting and exposing corruption. For example, they’ve published a 2012 report on ‘Corruption Perceptions‘ Index of each of the Countries of the world. Decide what you think about the usefulness and accuracy of such exercises.

Interestingly, though, openness and transparency aren’t simply concepts that magically appear. Not even if States create laws to ‘ensure’ them. Zimbabwe, for example, has an ‘Access to Information’ law, which states that citizens can request information from the government on a variety of topics. So does Nigeria, and a large number of other countries. However, just because the law exists doesn’t mean that openness or transparency exists. States still have the discretion to deny requests for information. Usually the denial should be done according to ‘good faith’ reasons. The problem is that so many governments, all across the world (and throughout history) have often acted in such extreme bad faith, that leaving it up to the government to make decisions about granting requests that could potentially expose its corruption/mistakes/inadequacies/incompetencies is a pretty huge conflict of interest.

So that’s the critical point. Openness and Transparency are key issues for governmental accountability. But getting information about the government involves asking the government to divulge information about itself. That is a big ask. Particularly of governments that have done a lot of questionable things.

Well, that’s not the only critical point. Just because the information is provided or made available, doesn’t mean it is useful. A major requirement for accessible information is that, well, it’s accessible. Here, the general population requires assistance in turning governmental information, which is, for example, data sets and statistics, into meaningful knowledge. This is one of the key roles that the media, as the 4th estate, plays in society. It helps us interpret information. But if the major media houses are controlled by politicians, or have political agendas (consider the fact that a major newspaper and TV channel in Kenya are owned by the family of the current president), it becomes very difficult to know what kind of filtered news you are getting. Knowledge leads to personal power, controlling the flow of knowledge to groups of people is a whole different level of power.

And one more critical point – just because there is access to information, and assuming there is a free and ethical media body, doesn’t mean that accountability will necessarily follow. Openness and transparency still require TEETH. The issues are not simply wagging a finger at a government when it does something bad, the issue is changing a culture of impunity, corruption, and placing a limit on power. That is a tall order, and something like that requires real weight behind it. I haven’t found any examples of states that have effectively done this. Most people would tend to look to the USA as an example of openness and transparency, but while the US has probably the broadest protections for Free Speech (another critical component!), it also has PRISM, laws limiting civic participation, and can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether people like Snowden and Manning are heroes or villains.

As a concluding thought – I was at a conference a year ago, where a good friend of mine chatted about how civil society has been working hard to promote Access to Information laws, and Freedom of Information as a major aspect of democratic governance. However, he pointed out that there is no evidence to show that an Access of Information law has ever reduced corruption, provided a more accountable government, and led to good governance. That’s interesting – often, in working in international relations, development, human rights, etc, we often take certain principles as ‘givens’. We should probably stop that. If we are aiming at accountability, we need to know how to measure it to know how close or far off we are.

(photo courtesy of http://www.getmiro.com)

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