Just prior to start of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 20, President Obama launched a new worldwide initiative called the Open Government Partnership. The initiative is a voluntary concord of countries willing to move forward in the areas that make governing better and more transparent. Those taking part have also committed to including civil society in the process and harnessing new technologies to strengthen governance—two values central to the work of the Open Society Foundations (indeed, the Foundations have been participating in the processes from the very beginning through the Transparency and Accountability Initiative). By combining technology and innovation—a pair nowadays so natural, especially for the younger generation—the Open Government Partnership could indeed be a significant tool that enables the long-awaited breakthrough in empowering people.
For the time being, eight countries have already joined the Open Government Partnership and another thirty-eight states are following their lead—elaborating on their country action plans and outlining concrete commitments on open government. In the spirit of the initiative this should be done only in close partnership with civil society. The Open Estonia Foundation decided to use this opportunity to create a platform for civil society called the Estonian Open Government Partnership with the aim of contributing to the formation, monitoring, and implementation of the country action plan for Estonia.
In addition to these efforts, the Estonian foundation organized a roundtable called "From e- and Open Governance to Open Society Foundations" to coincide with a UN conference on electronic governance held inTallinn last month. Altogether thirty-five people, including representatives from Open Society foundations in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, East Africa, Georgia, Haiti, Hungary, London, Macedonia, Moldova, New York, Romania, Serbia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine shared their views and experiences on the topic. The representatives emphasized the need to link and share experiences beyond national borders, be it on the topic of partnership or how to push governments to follow the principles of open data.
After several successful Estonia-specific projects such as e-voting and an e-participation portal, the e-Governance Academy has been active in sharing the country’s experience and learning from other novel initiatives—such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
E-voting is a potential solution for countries with a high rate of labor migration—e.g., Albania, Moldova, the Philippines, and many of the countries located in Central Asia—or large countries with scarce population, like Mongolia. However, technology is just one part of the multifaceted phenomenon of e-governance: it takes the relationship between governments and civil society to a whole new level of mutual commitment. That is why striving for open data is crucial even if governments are not overly enthusiastic about publishing such information.
Participants also emphasized that simple solutions and digital public services are needed in order to reach the average person and make sure that information is easily understood, for example using visual tools to represent a country’s budget. Once people understand how the money is spent, participatory budgeting can help further raise awareness and create a sense of responsibility, especially on the local level. The energy and drive behind startups can be channeled into creating new efficient and user-friendly public services. The Estonian experience with Garage48, a startup that helps people turn ideas into working prototypes over the course of a weekend, is one good example. This past February, over one weekend in Tallinn eleven projects were built—including 112 Mobile, a service that lets people with hearing disabilities place an emergency call a single touch, and Lastehoid.net, a child care database.
We are about to enter to a whole new era of open and good governance. Only time will tell if the Open Government Partnership can live up to its promise or fizzle out. Nevertheless the success of the initiative will not abolish the need for extra support to help civil society become an active player in e-governance issues. Providing assistance to civic society groups so that they can actively participate will have a lasting impact beyond declarations and changes in governments. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what term we use when talking about e-governance. It all comes down to making sure that the technology that is already out there can help serve the values of an open society. Today we have the opportunity to use and promote the cutting-edge tools of e-governance to help support open governance and open societies worldwide.