With declining faith in governments around the world, we face a global trust crisis. Citizen engagement with government is at risk as people cease to see political leaders and officials as reliable partners. Governments urgently need to act to win back people’s trust. Bold, ambitious open government reforms offer a path for doing so. But what should reformers prioritise? What are the most effective ways to build trust? How can leaders build governments that better serve and empower citizens?
Recently, at the Asia Pacific Leaders Forum in Jakarta, open government practitioners came together to find answers to these questions. Here are our three takeaways from the panel, “Building Trust and Public Integrity”:
1. Give citizens the tools and the space they need to be powerful
By opening up data, governments can give citizens tools to monitor government performance, hold leaders accountable and demand better services. If you want citizens to trust you, making these tools available is a good start. Indonesia’s General Elections Commission, for instance, has disclosed large amounts of data – ranging from budgets to ballots – to support transparent and fair elections. This open data has thought to have played a major role in preventing chaos in the country’s 2014 presidential election by allowing the public to validate results in the close contest.
There are two key ingredients to ensure access to information translates to increased trust in government. First, the data released should be the data citizens need to hold institutions to account and enable them to participate in policy-making. All too often governments are not opening up the data that people need and the data that is available is frequently out-of-date, of poor quality and hard to find. Secondly, governments need to ensure that citizens can make their voices heard in spaces that allow for an honest and critical exchange of opinions. There’s a limit to what people can do with data without the freedom to push for policy change. Transparency is necessary but insufficient for making governments responsive. To win back trust, governments must listen to citizens.
2. Lock in open government for the long haul
Bojonegoro, Indonesia – one of OGP’s subnational pioneers – has committed to open up government, by providing greater budget transparency, procurement reforms and better public services. But with local elections coming up, reformers in the Regency must work to institutionalize reforms to make open government sustainable whoever is in charge. Only when reforms are embedded in day-to-day governance will citizens realise the positive impacts and increase their trust in government.
Panelists pointed to two effective strategies to ensure open government is institutionalised and survives beyond any single administration. First, strong laws can prevent future administrations from rolling back open government reforms. And second, demonstrating the benefits of open government reforms to citizens can help to foster public demand for sustained investments in accountable and responsive government.
3. Build bridges, not walls
Governments should not work alone to win back citizens’ trust – but seek to partner with civil society. The panel discussed a number of examples where governments and citizens successfully worked in partnership. For example, in the Philippines, citizens audited public services and government programs in sectors such as health, infrastructure, and disaster management. In other countries like Pakistan, which joined the OGP in December 2016, more collaboration between civil society and government is needed to advance the country’s open government agenda. Embracing partnership and strengthening collective decision-making is key to driving successful open government reforms.
The need to rebuild trust
Open government has the potential to rebuild public trust. If we can institutionalise reforms and foster collaboration between champions in civil society and government, we can engage citizens in government and drastically improve policy and public services. If we fail to rebuild trust in public institutions, citizens may lose faith not only in government but in society as a whole.