Open Government – A joke and an ad

Open government doesn’t really lend itself to humour and it’s difficult to see the comedy material in improved public services, oversight and accountability. The best joke I’ve heard on the topic (unfortunately, UK specific) goes something like this:

In the UK, the party of government has something of an identity crisis. They call themselves the Conservatives, but many others call them the Tories. It’s all a bit confusing for people. Maybe they need to rebrand? I’d suggest the Conservatories – Making Parliament more Transparent.

Okay, as jokes go it’s not side-splitting. And I fear it may have lost something in the re-telling, but the basic comedy essence is still there. In Mexico, meanwhile, Parliament has taken a different approach to enthusing people about transparency and accountability. At the recent OGP summit in Mexico I was in a cab when I heard an ad on the radio promoting the work of Parliament. The basic message was that MPs were working to represent that people and that the upper and lower houses of the legislature were ‘the house of the people’. There was no humour, no irony. As a Brit, this seemed like an odd way of going about politics – the chances of the UK Parliament advertising their ‘services’ on commercial radio as a way of involving citizens are slim. We’re used to the taxman advertising on radio and reminding us to get our tax returns submitted on time, but the idea of Parliament advertising itself is a little alien.

These two examples beg an important question – what is the best way of educating and enthusing ordinary people about transparent and accountable government and open data? Talk of open data alone is unlikely to cut it; as a topic it’s not sexy and it’s unlikely to make the front pages even if the stories that can be generated from it may do. After all, British newspapers love stories about ‘postcode lotteries’ in health outcomes, rising unemployment and MPs fiddling their expenses claims. All these sorts of stories and more have been facilitated or made possible through the use of open data. These are the sorts of stories that prompt people to listen, make changes to their lives and maybe even vote in a different way. Public procurement? ‘Zzzzzz…..’ Council boss given luxury Porsche for official business? ‘That’s disgusting – he should be sacked and made to pay back the money!’ Two sides of the same coin.

Intermediaries – including the media – who can take open data (or information obtained from FOI requests) and present it in a way that resonates with people are crucial. It’s sometimes a skill that organisations working in this area lack, but it’s one that can’t be overlooked. Donors, the public and the media all like the attention-grabbing, impact-making stories and while they may not always be the most important or pressing issues, they are a way of highlighting the value of open government and open data. They are a way in for people to engage with these issues and learn about their value. The ONE Campaign has done some valuable work in the international arena in this regard. Their Follow the Money case studies provide short, snappy insights into the impact that open data is having around the world. No Porsche stories yet, but it must only be a matter of time…