What is Government Transparency, Citizen Participation and Open Government?

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What is Government Transparency, Citizen Participation and Open Government?

Open government, Government 2.0, and e-government are all terms used to describe how governments in the digital age can use information and technology to reduce corruption and increase government transparency, accountability, efficiency and citizen participation.

What do these terms mean in the context of your work? 

How do you define open government and frame it within your work? Why is it important?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.


It's about accountability.

To us at the Accountability Lab, the terms government transparency, citizen participation, and open government are tools to connect citizens with power-holders and build feedback loops. When citizens have access to government information and know how to use it to hold government accountable, they can break cycles of systemic corruption and set a new standard of integrity. We believe that a lack of accountability is at the root of almost all development challenges, including poverty, inequality, and violence. Without the accountability tools of transparency, citizen participation, and open government, state funds are embezzled, resources are not used efficiently, citizens voices are not heard, and basic needs are not met. A couple of the tools we've helped create towards this cause are: billboards at busy intersections on which citizen journalists provide information on government services in a way that citizens can understand, and accountability-focused film schools that teach youth how to create documentaries about issues in their communities and then hosts film festivals where community members and government stakeholders attend and discuss the issues. However, as members of the OpenGov Hub in Washington DC and founders of the OpenGov Hub in Kathmandu, we have realized that acheiving real and sustainable government transparency, citizen participation, and open government requires a variety of perspectives and extensive collaboration.

It's about accountability

Love the two tactics/tools that Anne cites above using citizen journalist created billboards and youth documentaries that lead to multi stakeholder discussions. Finding innovative ways for citizens, especially youth, to actively participate in holding government officials accountable will empower not just those citizens themselves, but have a multiplier effect. These type of actions help break the cycle of helplessness that so many citizens feel in wondering how they can play a role in holding government accountable.

Hoping for more great examples during the course of this important conversation.


It's about accountability

Anne, Susan,

Our local civic partners are increasingly using technology in their  political process monitoring (PPM) efforts. While there are many variations, these activities typically fall into five main types of monitoring:: legislative monitoring; budget monitoring, budget advocacy and expenditure tracking; shadow reports; monitoring government follow-through (including service delivery) ; and campaign-related monitoring. Each type of monitoring corresponds to different entry points where local groups can engage in the political process. For example:

•  Groups carrying out legislative monitoring initiatives directly observe legislative sessions and committees, interview legislators and use surveys to capture citizen perspectives. This type of monitoring is meant to foster accountability by publicly evaluating legislator performance and determining overall legislative effectiveness in meeting citizen needs.

•  When groups aim to hold their local government accountable for budget allocations and expenditures, they generally begin by monitoring budget committee sessions  and  examining  budget  documents.  The  findings from these activities may be used to identify issues needing greater scrutiny, inform budget advocacy campaigns seeking specific changes in the budget or budget process, track government expenditures and ensure that allocated funds are used efficiently and as intended.

•  Shadow reports can be developed by groups - often from traditionally marginalized populations - in order to monitor and raise awareness of government compliance with a signed international treaty, convention or declaration. These groups research and produce reports that identify and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of public policies, programs and services relevant to the international agreement. The reports are then submitted to a multilateral institution in conjunction with the government's "official" report on its compliance with the signed treaty, convention or declaration.

•  After a government has made an official decision - such as passing a domestic violence policy, signing a power sharing accord, advancing electoral reforms or initiating a constitutional reform process - civil society can hold governments accountable by monitoring the implementation of these decisions. Usually carried out by a coalition of CSOs to support an on-going advocacy or awareness- raising initiative, monitoring government follow-through involves collecting information via key informant inter- views and observations. The resulting product is often a report that the coalition then distributes to the public.

•  Taking advantage of the political space created by an election, civil  society can  conduct  campaign-related monitoring by gathering, analyzing and publicizing in- formation on party platforms, candidates' follow-through on campaign promises or compliance with pledges signed during a campaign. These types of monitoring activities allow citizens to establish a set of expectations that can be used to hold public officials accountable for actions before and after an election.

NDI has developed two PPM  guides, complete  with case studies, tools and outcomes from such efforts in select countries.  The guides are available in English and Arabic and can be found here:



News on a Chalkboard - Loved this from the Accountability Lab

The "Daily Talk" chalkboard began as a civic education platform with information such as ow to obtain a birth certificate and headlines like "Lawmakers or Moneymakers?" It has garnered international attention in the last few months as it began keeping a running 'scorecard' of the government's fight against Ebola.

Can we trust the integrity of digital information?

At the International Records Management Trust we have worked in countries across the world to support opneness in government and to to strengthen human rights and citizens' rights by strengthening evidence of what governments have done and what they have spent.  Our concern is that at present there is very little emphais on the management of the information that is being generated by ICT systems.  Government stakeholders and development planners are often unaware of the high risks involved if the structures, controls, and skills are not in place to manage the quality and the survival of information generated by information systems.  Our experience is that fragile digital records simply will not provide the evidence required to support government transparency, acfcountability, efficiency and citizen participation if they are not managed through time.  Aspirations for empowering citizens throught Right to Information and Open Data cannot be realised if this core evidence base is not available.

Fragile Digital Records

Have you experienced problems when information and meaning are lost due to media deterioration, software changes or hardware obsolescence. Or when records have been altered, deleted, fragmented, corrupted, kept without adequate identification or lost completely?

The Challenge of Defining Open

The questions at the top of this conversation may seem somewhat simple and easy to answer, but in fact  they are extremely important and more complex than many of us might have thought.  For example NDI ‘s  recently completed study Citizen Participation and Technology suggests that the term “ Open Government”  has vastly different meanings to different  people and that this often creates confusion in Open Gov programs.  There is a  blurring of the meaning between the technologies of open government data and the politics of open government that clouds program strategies and implementation. This lack of precision has various stakeholders using the same “open government” terminology, yet articulating different examples of successful outcomes, creating a “where you stand depends on where you sit” situation regarding both the application of technologies and the assessment of their effectiveness. For example, people with a technology focus often cite governments’ use of social media, legislative websites, or application programming interfaces (APIs) with government databases as positive examples of technology “opening” government. In such cases, access to government data defines government openness and implied corresponding citizen action and government responsiveness as a result. Meanwhile, issue advocacy groups and civil society leaders complain that, despite access to more information and new communication channels, they are no better able to engage in meaningful policy discussions or influence decisions than before. For these individuals, open data indicates more transparent government, but not more openness to participatory, inclusive, or accountable decision-making.  



Addressing the Gap of accountable decision making

Koebel  do you have ideas or emerging examples of how Civil Society Organizations can ensure  Open Government advocacy infuences decision-making? Likewise, how can the Open Government movement adress this semantic gap so that efforts improving the technology of Open Government and bettering the politics get the direct resources and attention they need without being confused for one another?


Addressing the Gap of accountable decision making


This is a very important question, and one that has no easy set of answers.  The semantic gap will, I think, take time. I’ve seen some progress in this area as more transparency and openness-type initiatives are being evaluated and reasons sought for their limited impact opening politics. This has local and international organizations and donors seeking ways to be much more explicit about the types “openness” they are promoting and how they might get there.   

 A good place to start in any particular program or country is working with each of the organizations involved in Open Government activities to clearly articulate the desired outputs ( activities, reports,  new ICT tools etc. ) and outcomes( what may change because of their work)  of their efforts and then support their work in making clear, logical linkages towards this end.  For example, groups working to make government data more available or those issuing scorecards rating the performance of elected leaders may play a role in an effort for open, responsive governance, but only if it is tied into a broader campaign in which other groups find such information relevant to their political advocacy.  

Thus, it is important that CSO to understand the differences between intermediary and infomediary roles they might play in advocating for specific issues, or more broadly, democratic governance. Advocacy and good governance CSOs have typically focused on building their overall capacities to serve as intermediaries between citizens and government. Successful intermediaries actively organize and involve citizens, develop political strategies and interact with the government on behalf of citizen interests - a process that builds citizenship skills and democratic norms in developing contexts.  This is changing, due in part to the advent of such transparency initiatives as the Open Government Partnership  which are increasingly involving  myriad different organizations and new, discrete roles for existing CSOs, often with a particular focus on expanding citizen access to information. In many instances, they step out of a traditional intermediary role, leaving organizing, citizen participation and issue advocacy up to other organizations that may use their data. These groups thus play infomediary roles. They gather, analyze, produce and distribute political information so that more citizens and civil society organizations have the information needed to more effectively take part in political processes.   

More on these ideas, several case studies of country programs and recommendations can be found in the most recent edition of the Civic Update publication the Citizen Participation team  at NDI puts out 3 – 4 times per year. 

Definitions of open government

Koebel- very interesting point. Makes absolute sense and corresponds to a lot of what we've experienced on the ground in relation to the terms "accountability" and "corruption" too. In one case, we were told a story about two officials who stole money in a community- one who shared it with the community, and another who did not. Both were corrupt but only the official who did not share the spoils was deemed as such- which begins to get into very interesting cultural interpretations of these concepts. I suppose it supports the idea that when engaging in a specific context around open government and accountability issues, truly taking the time to understand how different stakeholders perceive the issues (and therefore the possible responses to them) is essential.

Great Open Government Report - USA

For those working on open government issues in the USA, the Aspen Institute recently published a report that offers excellent insight on the subject. The report examines current barriers to open government and provides creative solutions for advancing open government efforts.  It can be found here: Toward the Next Phase of Open Government

Expansion of the meaning of e-government

I had a few thoughts on the expanding meaning of e-government.

In 1999, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined e-government “as the application of information and communication technology to achieve better government. It is not a goal, but rather a tool that can be used to transform society by enhancing administrative efficiency and effectiveness and increasing citizen participation in—and the transparency and accountability of—the policy-making process”.

From such broad possibilities outlined in that definition, I've notieced the following expansion of the meaning as the capacities of ICT have grown along with the demands of citizens:

  • ICT enabled government (internally for government)
  • e-government to deliver services (e.g., such as the Korean E-Procurement System)
  • Open government to advance the participationn of citizens

For those interested in hearing an interesting conversation highlighting the need for advances being "citizen focused" - listen to this radio program (25 minute):  "David Eaves, Public policy entrepreneur and open government activist, chats about his reflections inspired by the OECD E-Leaders meeting, and his perspectives on the value of these intergovernmental gatherings to people working in the trenches."
Available on: gov2.Oradio and see the regular page -  http://www.oecd.org/gov/public-innovation/

World e-Governments Organization

Thanks for these references! I recently came across the organization We-GO (the World e-Governments Organization of Cities and Local Government, http://www.we-gov.org/WeGO_at_a_Glance). They run an annual award competition to recognize excellence and innovation in e-government programs. The list of winners from the last 2 years offers a nice snapshot of emerging practices around the world. See http://www.we-gov.org/WeGO_Awards.

Expanding the definition of e-government

Hi Nancy- interesting post and very good points. I wonder whether we should be redefining e-government as "e-participation". The problem with e-governance initiatives is that they have generally not lived up to expectations or functioned as effectively as hoped by many citizens. A number of these initiatives have famously drawn in significant amounts of public funds but produced online systems that were difficult to use, over-priced and based on clunky back-end architectures. Many of those projects that did work were not so much examples of e-governance as “i-government”- through which authorities put information online and made important strides in terms of transparency- but not necessarily in terms of accountability. The net effect has largely been the digitization of processes rather than transformed governance.

It seems to me that the key to an effective e-governance system is that the government concerned works from the citizen upwards, rather than bureaucratic procedures downwards, to ensure that the experience is efficient and tailored to specific needs- much like retail websites. The best way to do this is not through structured systems that provide stove-piped information and feedback, but creative, personalized tools which are based on integrated information and process alignment among government ministries.

In South Australia, the Just Ask Once initiative, for example, increases public access to government information and services by creating channels of information and services organized around citizens’ needs, rather than by government structures or departments. By integrating government resources and providing a single source of information and point of contact for citizens, Just Ask Once allows the government to respond to citizens more directly and more effectively.

In Korea, which won the UN’s global e-governance 2010 and 2011 awards, citizens can customize the central online governance portal (for both national and local level issues) to their needs through entering their age, gender, location, and service of interest; and can search by theme and subject. The tools that then pop-up categorize information by websites, services and news; and users can engage in everything from petitioning the government, to complaining about government services, to paying their taxes and applying for patents online. E-participation in the system is enhanced through free mobile apps downloadable from the portal that are matched to key services, knowledge hubs and employment databases.

Important efforts are now being made to share some of this learning around e-participation too. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs releases a global annual report on e-government and draws out some of the key e-participation initiatives. Estonia- well known for its e-governance efforts- has partnered with the Open Society Institute and the UNDP Regional Support Centre to take this further by establishing the e-Governance Academy, which works to create and share knowledge concerning e-governance, e-participation and the development of civil society.

Technology is only a tool, of course, and not an end in itself- e-participation does not fundamentally change the interaction of governments with citizens, it just modernizes it. In places like Cape Verde, where e-governance is becoming entrenched through the government portal NOSI, how can we facilitate the next step to e-participation? 

Useful versus useless transparency

I agree with everything Anne Sophie pointed out above, of course- but wanted to add a note on the importance of useful versus useless transparency. Many governments are nominally transparent, but this is not useful for accountability if the data is not in a form that can be used and adapted (machine readable, for example). In some of the countries we work in, information officers may be willing to provide access to data- but it is in dusty files in ministy basements, or at best in word documents. This makes it useless rather than useful without huge amounts of work. So efforts to build standards for open data are, of course, key.

Open data standards, CitySDK

Yes! Totally agree. Forum Virium in Helsinki is leading a project to encourage cities to provide 311 information and other data in machine-readable, interoperable formats. With Lisbon and Amsterdam, Helsinki is working in three domains: Smart Participation, Smart Mobility, and Smart Tourism. They recently released the CitySDK Cookbook (http://www.citysdk.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/CitySDK-Cookbook.pdf), which highlights projects the cities undertook in these areas.

Fluent and real bottom-up approach

Hi everyone,

What an incredible dialogue! At Democracia en Red we embrace the expansion that Nancy mentioned regarding ICTs capacities and open government meanings. Civic demonstrations and protests throughout the world show us that even in strong democracies where their citizens have access to electing their representatives; there is still the need to speak up and to take to the streets in order to be heard.

Our work today aims to have no representation without a conversation, we need to embrace how technology can make more fluent and real a bottom-up outlook regarding legislations and public policy design. 

And our first approach is to design and develop an open-source web application that is designed to become a bridge between citizens and their elected representatives.

We believe that a contemporary and politically necessary response to this is improving the participation of citizens through the virtues of new technologies. At this great TED talk, our Director Pia Mancini, explains how we can achieve this.

Also, here you can see a public demo where, for example, we can all discuss David Cameron’s pledge for an anti-terror law for internet after Paris attacks. 



How does context impact personal expectations and strategy?

Blaire and Koebel bring up interesting points about how the expectations of Open-Government tactics depend on the needs and aims of the communitities and CSO's  wanting to adopt them. Are there experiences any conversation leaders would want to share of how they adjusted their expectations of  Open Government tactics  to help citizens use ICT? I sense this is often a difficulty for practitioners from the global north helping communities in the global south.

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