Published on July 23, 2014

Power, politics and open government

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Involve's incoming director, taking over from 21st January 2017. Tim has led campaigns and advocacy on open government; advised national, devolved and local governments, civil society organisations and multilateral institutions; and researched and written on topics including public participation, open government, democratic reform, civil society advocacy and public administration.

okfest14Last week I was lucky enough to be in Berlin for the Open Knowledge Festival 2014.

As much as I know I should, I often struggle to blog after events. Fortunately this time I was cornered by our friends at The Engine Room, who forced me to reflect on my takeaways from the two days.

So here they are…


 

What’s the most interesting project you have seen at OKFest?

The most interesting session I went to was on power, politics, inclusion and voice. It’s really important that the open data community have that discussion. We think tools are a neutral or positive thing that will bring about change by themselves, but we need to think about it through power and politics. The real danger is that data and technology just fit into the existing power structures and reinforce the imbalance of power between different groups.

Sources of power, from OKFest14

Sources of power, from OKFest14

What should be open?

Power. The open government movement is about making power open. There’s a chain that needs to happen. Power needs to be transparent: we need to know who holds it, how they exercise it, who they are linked to, etc. We need to look at how you start to redistribute and broaden power, for example by bringing in new groups to decision making processes through citizen engagement. You also need accountability to ensure that those with power are held accountable. We need to ensure those mechanisms are in place to allow that to happen through the media and civil society using both soft power and hard accountability measures, like parliamentary scrutiny.

What should not be open?

People. There’s the whole privacy issue where we need to balance two entirely separate things: we need a serious public debate about security and privacy. We also need to think about who should be making that trade-off. Too often it is made by the powerful at the expense of the less powerful.

In your opinion, what has opening knowledge accomplished?

It’s led to change in isolated situations. Our challenge for the coming decade is to scale it. We should work out what’s transferrable between different contexts to ensure open knowledge can be enjoyed by everyone. If it continues as it is it could lead to greater inequality. At the moment, there are those who can benefit from openness because they are politically savvy or tech savvy, and there are those that don’t benefit at all. It’s leading to a burgeoning of the middle class. No longer just the upper classes that have access to openness, the middle classes do too, but the bottom are completely isolated and can’t benefit.

What’s next for the open knowledge movement?

Broadening it. We need to deal with inclusion and push back against the encroachment on privacy. We need to be more critical of the role of politics and power in the movement.


 

You can find this interview, along with the rest of The Engine Room’s flash interviews from OKFest2014, at: http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/okfest-flash-interviews

Leave a Reply