Author: Maria Habanikova, Former Research Officer at the Institute on Governance
On October 7th, 2014 the World Bank Group (WBG) opened its doors on the renown Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. to over 300 ambitious civically-minded young professionals from all around the world to connect and network at the Youth Summit titled ‘The Need for Open and Responsive Governments.’ It was a unique opportunity blending policy dialogue and tool-focused workshops to explore different ways in which global youth, having at their disposal mediums not available even a decade ago, can collaborate and get involved in their governments’ decision making process, enhance transparency, and assure accountability in the governance contexts they interact with daily, be it locally, regionally, nationally and even internationally.
Just as there is no clear-cut definition of good governance, the interpretation of open government is always contextual. The value of the Summit was precisely in the intertwining of perspectives and experiences from a variety of political and socio-economic backgrounds that showed the challenges faced but also successes enjoyed by different countries.
An effective way to learn about and from other national contexts is through case studies. One was presented at the Summit in a panel discussion with Erion Veliaj, the Albanian Minister for Social Welfare and Youth. Mr. Veliaj introduced the idea of a subcontracted government, which means a government that encourages its youth (and citizenry in general) to be guardians of their own taxes. In Albania, applying this in practice has reduced fraud by 20%. A subcontracted government invites people to do things in their own communities and to report back on their contributions as well as inappropriate behavior. Actions speak louder than words so governments need to lead by example instead of giving orders; when they are at the frontlines of action, people will be more motivated to get involved as well.
Mr Veliaj claimed, “governance is politics”. At first, I disagreed because as a governance consultant and former public policy student, I comprehend governance in a very different way. I interpret it as the ‘relationship between those who govern and those who are governed’; a relationship that enhances open government but that is not government in and of itself. However, after Mr. Veliaj linked governance to the way political parties behave and engage with their voters, his definition didn’t seem so farfetched. Demonstrations and tangible promises of good governance, he stated, are in parties’ best interest because their existence in their respective parliaments – wherever in the world those may be – depends on the inclination of citizens to vote in their favor. Therefore, open government becomes a self-serving prophecy.
What struck me the most about the Youth Summit was the professional affiliation of its attendees. None of them came from the political sphere, public sector or government. For instance, none of the 70 participants of ‘#OpenGovNow: Innovations on Gathering Citizen Feedback’ session worked for their respective government. This was shocking to me because while governance may not be the same as government, the two undoubtedly go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin. Undoubtedly, the need for open government and good governance is bigger today than ever before and even though governance is definitely not government, we definitely require more government present in governance discussions.
Canada’s membership in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is commendable and necessary. Having submitted its second Action Plan on Open Government in October this year, Canadian government, among other goals, committed to ‘consult, engage and empower.’ It is clear it realizes that ‘open dialogue’ is necessary to improve services and make them more accessible to the citizens.
The 11-hour day of plenary sessions, workshops, and discussions at the WBG demonstrated that it is important to recognize that “[while] technology is driving disruptive change (applications, social media, etc.) it has not yet replaced the more traditional means of governance (policy, voting, etc.); therefore, the two need to learn how to coexist. We are not in an era of “business as usual,” Viva Dadwal, a member of the Young Diplomats Canada delegation shared her insights after the Summit. Furthermore, this particular Youth Summit confirmed what research and statistics have shown, as revealed during the introductory remarks by Nicholas Bian, the Summit’s Chair: that youth supports open government and is interested in pursuing tangible action-oriented solutions.
Note: Originally written for and published in the Canadian Government Executive (CGE) magazine in January 2015