Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Open Gov in My Country – Germany and Pakistan

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For some time now has been supporting open government initiatives. In our opinion new methods of open internet-based governance are needed if we are to meet the global challenges that lie ahead. The revolutions taking place in parts of the Arab world are only the latest compelling example of the immensely important role played by the internet in furthering the development of societies.

Transparency, accountability and participation are all buzz words that have now been taken up by the media – yet they are developing far more vigorous dynamics than traditional forms of participatory discussions ever gave birth to. Why is this? In many countries across the world the current call is for much more than just granting people wide-ranging opportunities for participation. Instead of such a top-down approach, people are demanding to be involved in those political decision-making processes they see as relevant as a legitimate right. This poses a challenge we would do well not to underestimate to ossified political and administrative procedures while at the same time it clearly shows that the challenges involved differ from country to country depending on the system of government and the specific form of political culture a country has.

So what could such open government processes look like? In answering this question it is important to remember that participation is not an end in itself. Humanity is facing complex global challenges while the traditional mechanisms for decision-making in politics and academia have now reached their limits:

– National-oriented politics have no future.

– We need an interdisciplinary approach to thinking and acting.

– Often enough, even the experts can’t point to a solution.

As a global platform for interaction, intends its new series “Open Gov in My Country” as a contribution to finding out what open government means for individual countries, where the challenges lie, and what conditions need to be met before we can speak of the successful introduction of open government in a country.

In this edition of “Open Gov in My Country” Mario Sorgalla from Germany and Farhan Janjua from Pakistan share their views. Ole Wintermann

What does open government mean to you and what should it look like in your country?

Mario Sorgalla, Germany: For me the underlying principle of open government is the assumption that governments are set up to serve the people. It’s not the people who have to serve governments. This assumption is the starting point for a broad set of theoretical and practical implications. First and foremost, citizens have the right to be informed by their governments about the decisions that are taken. Also, what is the basis on which these decisions have been taken? This makes accountability of the utmost importance. It is no longer in keeping with our age of digital real-time communication and information that governments grant the right to vote only once every four years (depending on the election period). Opportunities for participation have to be expanded so that governments earn their legitimacy on an on-going basis and not just every so often. But I would also like to say that open government should also imply the citizens’ duty to participate – and not to act like they don’t care and like there’s someone there who will decide for them.

In my country open government doesn’t need to replace our type of democracy which has been working pretty well for quite a while. What open government can do, however, is expand on it! We should be able to participate more actively in making decisions that affect our lives, especially with regard to decisions that affect us in the long term. Think of issues like climate change or public authorities’ debt overload. What’s more, when I think of open government I also think of decision-making on a municipal level. Compared to other countries Germany might seem like a country that’s free of corruption – but it’s not! Take the construction sector for instance! Involving citizens and providing transparency in such processes could be a means to combat corruption. If a city or municipality plans to redesign public space why shouldn’t citizens be able to participate? They ought to be involved from the very beginning and not only at a later stage when everything is agreed. Acting in such a way could bring public protests against construction projects down to a minimum.

What are the major hurdles on the way to open government in your country?

MS: The major obstacle is the difficulty in surmounting practices that have been carried out for decades. Administrations have to get used to the fact that information and data are not their personal possessions. They only administer them. This is a cultural change that won’t happen from one day to the next.

At which point would you characterize your country as being successful in implementing the principles of open government?

MS: I would call my country an “open government” country when I think that I am fully informed about what our government is doing and why they are doing it; when I have the feeling that I can participate in making important decisions that have to be taken. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I would like to vote on each and every decision that has to be taken but I would like to have the feeling that my opinion will be heard. Also, when I notice that a cultural change in administration has led to a greater willingness on the part of citizens to participate in political decision-making.

What does open government mean to you and what should it look like in your country?

Farhan Janjua, Pakistan: Open government means a lot especially in the developing countries like Pakistan where democracy is still in its early stages and where governments have much less public support and are accused of corruption in almost every field. In such a scenario, where governments are already so weak, citizens get annoyed about these secret sessions – also known as “in camera” sessions – where the rulers get together, discuss and take important decisions about the fate of the country. Because citizens feel they have the right to know about the proceedings and happenings in the country.
In my opinion, citizens indeed do have a right to know about the decisions being taken about them in the name of greater public interest. And only when they are given this right will the government be able to win the real trust of the public. As a free speech activist, I condemn the censorship of information, and I strongly advocate people having the right to know of the proceedings and the decisions and the state’s position on what decides their fate.

What are the major hurdles on the way to open government in your country?

FJ: Immature politicians and the immature state of our democracy, of course. Some right wing elements which include religious clerics are also hurdles because they maintain and advocate control of information. Last but not least, the establishment is also a hurdle as it too maintains secrecy and control of information for deeply vested state interests. In the past, the former president and prime minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was also an advocate of the public’s right to information about state affairs.

At which point would you characterize your country as being successful in implementing the principles of open government?

FJ: We have already started a debate on this issue in the liberal and educated class communities which have been urging the government to begin the transition to open government – at least to the extent they see as necessary for the public. We have had a reasonable amount of success in this respect and a debate on this issue has now started in the parliament and media. Just today a senior politician and the former information minister of Pakistan Ms. Sherry Rahman presented a Right to Information bill to parliament which is really a very positive signal!

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