Dienstag, 8. November 2011

Open Gov Data and Civil Participation - Part 3

This is the third and last part of the blogpost about civil participation

A new model for user control of personal data

Every individual in society should have the right to decide which of their personal data should be made available for publication. This new model reverses and replaces the old model of data surveying and storage by government (and enterprise).

In their consensus on data security, the panel also agree that the ways we handle personal and public data are changing. There are many reasons for this but for Andy Williamson the main ones have to do with the cultural transformation which the openness and transparency of Web 2.0 is bringing about. "Web2.0 opens up data much more widely but it also changes public perceptions of data and of what is public and private."

Advances in technology require us as a society to rethink our ideas of which sort of information should be private and which should be public. "As this happens and we get more mature and nuanced about privacy, I think we'll see privacy systems developing" says Williamson. Such systems must be engineered to cope with permanent change. "Privacy laws and their administration are largely adequate but there again they will also need to be continually evolved and refined."

However, it could very well be that an individual's right to, and responsibility for, their own data could suffer under such a process. "It makes obvious sense to give every single person the responsibility for, and the right to manage, their personal data in the way that person prefers" says Ole Wintermann. "But we know that reality works against such a normative-based goal." He argues that all the personal data we leave behind us as we use the internet makes control impossible. What we need, he argues, is a minimum social consensus or a minimum security standard for personal data that really would ensure efficient protection.

Jonathan Eyler-Werve puts his focus on the protection of the individual when he wonders, "Is this privacy requirement benefiting individuals or institutions" Data disclosure can be good and useful for some while others need their data protecting. "There is a struggle between unaccountable institutions (government, corporations and so on) and people without power, people on the margins of acceptable society. Privacy rules protect the powerless while opacity in institutions protects those who are already empowered."

Structure follows function

The current structures of government have not been designed to take account of active feedback from civil society. New processes and the structural changes they require are needed to enable active citizen participation.

The panel is unanimous in its belief that political processes and structures not only can change but must change. Yet so far none of them had seen signs of a fundamental change – with the notable exception of Iceland. The people of Iceland can use the internet to participate in the evolution of a new constitution, bring in new ideas and take part in discussions. The decision to adopt this new procedure was made by the government and thus came top-down from the highest instance. And it's an approach that John Wonderlich would like to see adopted for opening up data catalogues. "I'm most interested in encouraging centralized policies and authority that can create affirmative, proactive disclosure of important datasets." The tricky part he says is bringing the key agencies and all the interests involved together to accept a common denominator. "This is difficult to attain since central government offices are reluctant to get involved in agencies' decisions, and because political incentives won't always be well-aligned with the public interest."

Striking out in new directions always involves leaving well trodden paths – a truism that applies equally to Open Government. Ole Wintermann thinks that an essential precondition for change is conduct of a critical analysis that many of the parties concerned would be highly reluctant to engage in. "The implementation of OGD is always bound up with the critical analysis of the old processes of political decision-making. And it comes as no surprise at all that some protagonists of the old role model have every interest in discrediting every innovation made for more open government." This is why he proposes that the first step should be producing models and best practice examples which engage with open data for open government and at the same time function as business models. He thinks that the gap separating theoretical constructs and practical realization is still too wide, "From my point of view there is still a failure to translate the theoretical open gov concept into real governance."

New models of political decision-making are urgently needed if open government data are to become everyday reality. Andy Williamson is convinced that two essential preconditions must be met before this can happen. "What is needed is a change in culture as much as a change in the way that the policy cycle is engaged with by government." In other words, political decision-makers need to reconsider their roles and also show more openness to those beyond their immediate ken. "Policy-makers are not trained to engage, they are trained to write and evaluate policy. So the first change that is needed is a shift in emphasis in their role, one that also includes a space for engagement with specialists." And this he believes must take place at an early stage of the decision-making process even though, as he warns, it could involve political decision-making processes becoming more protracted and more expensive which is why he advises keeping a watchful eye on the costs. Andy Williamson thinks that open government and civil participation can at times be legitimately restricted to a limited number of people. "It's important to distinguish the nature of engagement in the policy cycle. It is not always appropriate that input is cast out to a wider public. It might be more efficient and effective to consult expert groups." He still thinks that the internet is an important tool, but it's not the only way and more often than not is only a means to an end. "We need to consider effective ways to engage online but we also need to give consideration to how the internet is used as a channel to manage and aggregate offline consultations too."