I have just started the six-week academic sessions of the Washington Fellowship at the Arizona State University. During this time, I shall spend my time learning and considering many aspects of civic leadership and most of all, I shall be considering an essential question, which is the over-riding reason why I do what I do or why I have chosen Open Government as the chunk of the world’s challenges that I will take a bite of.
In general, those of us who work in the transparency and accountability space operate on several assumptions, chiefly among them that a transparent government, that involves its citizens in its operations is good – for development, for improving the quality of people’s lives and for improving the delivery of public service. Thinking through these assumptions is going to be the Essential Question that I shall continue to consider.
The thing is, the idea of government being owned by the people is not a new one. In his Gettysburg address in 1863, American president Lincoln pronounced the phrase that has anchored the notion of democracy for years, “…that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people…” In all these intervening centuries, in all countries of the world, ‘government’ and ‘the people’ became concepts that grew apart as it was generally agreed that the role of the citizen was to democratically elect their representatives and it was enough for them to allow the representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Beyond elections, citizens have not find space for themselves in governance and it has been generally agreed in many spaces that is to the detriment of government that they are involved in the detail – too many cooks spoil the soup and so on.
Recently, the idea is gaining ground that citizens have a role to play in their governance. That the government must be open to them, that they must be encouraged to participate and that development should be a collaborative effort that includes citizen contribution. President Barack Obama signed an executive order articulating this notion better than I ever could: “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
But is it? In these days when terrorists lurk in every corner (and can use the information availed to them to better plan their attacks), when the diversity of opinion is as divergent and the people who wield those opinions (citizens can’t really agree on a direction), might we be taking democracy too far? In the cacophony of voices from all that citizen engagement, can development really be more sustainable, more lasting and more efficient if citizens were involved?