Good governance, the accountability stack and multi-lateral fora

At Indigo we are funding tech driven transparency projects directly in seven countries with interests in another four.  We take part in the Open Aid Register work and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. Indigo is often asked generic questions about tech driven transparency projects – increasingly by people wanting to fund them or help make them come about. There isn’t a text book for this stuff so we thought we would set out thinking out before the DfID and Omidyar Network ‘Open Up’ event this week. We’d be grateful for comments

An accountability stack

Good governance is dependent upon a critical set of enablers functioning: parliament, judiciary, media, civil society etc. For these enablers to work, from Indigos perspective, basic information is required about each component. What are the laws? Who are the Members of Parliament? What are their interests/ownerships? What has the tax money been spent on? Who are the judges? Who are the civil servants? Who owns the companies? What were their revenues? What permits/concessions have been granted? Who owns the newspapers and TV stations?

This set of information starts to form a basic accountability information stack. Transmission of such information to people who might need it is where digital technologies are at their strongest. At a simple level, what might the components of this transparency stack be?  What vital pieces of information could be made available digitally and add to national good governance:

Constitution – as amended in force
Laws – criminal, civil, administrative (old and new), case law where relevant
Parliaments and assemblies at national, regional and local levels – lists of Members, their assets and declarations of interests, list of Parties, record of upcoming business, debates, votes and legislation in debate
Ruling Executive – lists of Ministers, Appointees, bureaucratic executive senior members and their interests, constitutions and governance of major public bodies, access to transparency measures e.g. FOI and major permit or licence granting schemes
Companies – Directors, shareholders, accounts
Public expenditure – budgets, expenditure details, beneficiaries, contracts

However, very few countries could tick all these boxes. But with only a little effort much information could be released digitally, even in an imperfect form. The original Berners Lee thesis was to publish in any form, not sit around for years polishing data to make it perfect.

‘Put the data up where it is: join it together later’

At the most basic level, if this data is printed somehow then someone somewhere will have typed it up in a word processor. Just stick those files on the web in Google docs. Worry about the technicalities of open data much later.

We’d welcome views on this accountability stack.

Multilateral work on digital transparency

With the UK government chair of the G8 coming up next year we have been thinking about how tech-driven transparency could feature in that process. The following could apply to any multilateral process.

Many governments struggle with modern transparency; the OGP, G8, G20 etc will have their work cut out to find common ground beyond the pleasantries. Some governments in G20 for instance are downright opaque. So for the open data and transparency agenda to persist in multilateral fora and make a difference, some common ground has to be found that isn’t just the lowest common denominator.

Open data has to retain a (small ‘p’) political appeal. One of the biggest challenges for an agenda with technology at its core is to remain comprehensible. The open data agenda to needs to grasp plain language and demonstrate benefits to the woman in the street. The geek stuff and the welter of acronyms, standards etc has to be firmly in the background and subservient to citizen needs. Clear, crisp examples are the way to demonstrate what this stuff is for, here’s some example that we have supported: – remarkable transparency of the Kenyan parliament – the MP ratings are especially good – Indigo working with Omidyar to bring this approach to other national parliaments in Africa – Nigerian government budget broken down into comprehensible chunks. – over 400,000 downloads of the Nigerian constitution to mobile phones.

However, some of the above would scare-off governments who might be around the table.

At Indigo our emerging view is that company information is a good place for multilateral forums to focus upon. The use of companies as vehicles for embezzlement is a serious issue and open company registers would be a basic step in addressing that.

Publishing basic directors and financial information in an open and transparent form online isn’t directly threatening to governments themselves and is a good foot in the door for transparency. The Open Corporates project is strong and well regarded .  Indigo is exploring whether this type of approach could be brought to countries in Africa.