On the sidelines of this week’s UN General Assembly, I experienced the “Power of Open.” Across town, at Google’s New York headquarters, I joined other U.S. and foreign government officials, high-tech entrepreneurs and executives, NGO activists as well as public and private donors to support the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).
The participants at the meeting were a mix of the converted, long-time leaders in this movement of openness and data, as well as some, like me, who were more skeptical. And no help: several of us also experienced the power of the wrong address. Perhaps we should have Googled how to get to Google; the address on the conference agenda was incorrect and had us wandering the (not unpleasant) halls of the Chelsea Market. (At one point, I was directed to an elevator but a guard wouldn’t let me on because I didn’t have the right badge. Not very open. After pursuing the low-tech approach—ask half a dozen strangers “where is Google?” which sounded like a trick question—I finally found it.)
Once fortified by excellent bagels and lox (the upside of the private-public partnership: food), but still skeptical, I settled in to listen and learn.
Let’s be clear. I am not in favor of opacity; I have been fighting for open societies and increased access to information for over two decades. And my colleagues literally laugh at my inability to make it through an hour-long meeting without using the word “data.”
But until yesterday, the concept of “Open Government” has struck me as overly broad and unmoored. It seemed to mean everything to some and nothing to many.
I was particularly worried that “Open Government” might be an easy out for authoritarian regimes. Instead of talking about democracy or human rights, not very nice regimes might gravitate instead toward puffed up pronouncements about how their government had automated the paper procurement process (not that that is bad.) Would the OGP really have an effect on people’s lives? And more directly, how did this effort mesh with what we are doing at USAID advancing democracy, human rights, and governance?
I came away a convert.