U.S. Falls Behind in Race Toward Open Government: Susan Crawford
When Brazil’s government buys anything from fighter jets to a fancy villa, details are available online within 24 hours. Such disclosures are a powerful way to combat corruption, and are a model for official openness that could inspire other nations.
Brazil’s online portal started in 2004. Among its contents: information about Brazilian outlays in advance of hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The site includes an online channel for whistleblower complaints.
Because corruption is a major problem in Brazil, timely release of spending data, including daily information about the use of government credit cards, is designed to help the media and opposition politicians in Brazil reveal crooked behavior. If a minister buys a truckload of wine with her government card, or pays off a cousin, someone will notice.
Enthusiasm for open government is taking hold not just in Brazil, but in countries such as Kenya, India and the U.K. Kenya last month became the first sub-Saharan African country to launch a government-data portal. India is a beehive of activity; it has initiated ambitious plans for providing public services with the help of mobile phones in rural areas and for electronic citizen engagement in government generally.
Last month, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron instructed public agencies to release a flood of comparative public data: student achievement in schools by subject; health outcomes by doctors’ practices; complaints about National Health Service hospitals; quality of medical education; and procurement spending for all transactions of more than 500 pounds ($826).
At a time of antagonism and austerity in the U.K., the importance of government transparency is the rare subject on which there is substantial consensus.
Tim Kelsey, the U.K. government’s senior adviser on transparency, believes open data can improve quality and save money in public services. He points out that the release of comparative heart-surgery data by the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery has led to a 50 percent improvement since 2001 in the overall risk-adjusted death rate for related procedures.
Open government is often misunderstood. Broadly, it includes transparency, accountability, citizen engagement in governance, innovation in the delivery of public services, and use of technology, among other things. It’s fair to say that many flavors of open government are unfamiliar to many politicians.
Having the world watch what you do can be uncomfortable. Despots loathe openness; their commandeering ways depend on camouflage. Even in well-run democracies, career civil servants often heave sighs of despair over openness, seeing little benefit and knowing how difficult it can be to put in place.
But there is nothing better than accessible comparative data about public services to spur improvements and increased professionalism. More generally, openness supports richer connections between citizens and the state. Next month, President Barack Obama will address a UN General Assembly meeting to praise open government and announce an Open Government Partnership led by Brazil and the U.S. This atypical initiative isn’t focused on ranking countries against set criteria, but instead broadly encourages a huge range of innovative practices. A handful of other countries -- South Africa, Norway, Mexico, the Philippines, and the U.K. -- are joining now. Dozens more will follow.
As the Sept. 20 meeting gets closer, the press and public will be watching. Co-chair Brazil hasn’t yet passed a Freedom of Information law that has been hanging fire for two years. Critics of the U.S.’s track record on opening up government information are feeling cynical. Transparency advocates wonder whether the U.S. is focusing on an international process so as to divert attention from its domestic failings.
This is a fragile moment for open government around the world. Though it seems as if age-old challenges of corruption and public distrust should be addressed with the help of 21st-century tools, isolated reformers are battling bureaucracies that have an interest in keeping public information secret.
Entrenched governments grow fearful, wanting to avoid rocking the boat and hoping to survive re-election challenges. Even the muscular transparency of the relatively new U.K. government may run into obstacles.
Building support for open government is crucial. A competition to find the world’s most open governments could provide needed nudges, including for the U.S. Countries around the globe are racing ahead with open government; the U.S. should feel fresh urgency to keep moving forward, too.
(Susan Crawford is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Cardozo School of Law. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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