Inspired by the discussion started by Tom Steinberg on Civic Hall and John Wonderlich’s of Sunlight Foundation answer (and then Tom’s answer), we decided to add a bit of a Central and Eastern Europe’s perspective to the ultimate question of change-making. For those who weren’t following this discussion closely: this is where it started.
The Central European perspective
We have been FOIA activists for years. And we have been doing it in the countries where 20 years ago transparency was a concept not more understandable than the idea that stands behind the Large Hadron Collider. At least for most of the people including political leaders, public officials and the general public. While observing the development of transparency, accountability and Open Data ideas we can see how far we have traveled since, but we are also aware that we have not reach the point where we can see the end of our road from. For that reason it was interesting to read the discussion held between Tom Steinberg and John Wonderlich on the state of Open Data and the effectiveness of advocacy methods.
None of them claimed that there is only one way to achieve the transparent and open state, but we got an impression that they do suggest that one way is better than the other.
We were brought up in a rather grey reality, not inside the John Wayne’s movies, so we have the answer for his famous question „If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’”. The world is not black and white because it is not the mathematics that stays behind politics, policies and attitudes. It is human beings. And each of them is unique in what drives them and what influences their views. To change the system we have to approach it from each of its sides. The success of the Solidarity (Solidarność) movement was based on diverse activities addressed to different actors. People were on the streets, in courtrooms, in underground publishing houses, in independent media. Some people were more radical, some less. What actually turned to be successful wasthe variety of activities bombarding authorities from different angles.
Therefore we can agree that we have to be more tough and demanding or adversarial. But apart from the lack of a clear meaning of each of these words we think that we should apply them equally with others like: education, promotion, negotiation.
Is FOI More Adversarial Than Open Data?
This discussion is not only about the tactics on how to open the data. It is more a part of the conflict between the Freedom of Information understood as general openness, and transparency and the Open Data understood primarily as technological aspects of this touchstone of ademocratic state. In Central and Eastern Europe we are aware of the accuracy of the thesis that “technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government’s services are no substitute for public accountability” (Yu, Harlan and Robinson, David G., The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (February 28, 2012). 59 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 178 (2012).)
For this reason we would implement one type of advocacy policies to gain more accountable state, and different to challenge obstacles that prevent governments from releasing data in an open manner.
We were always tough and demanding when it came to releasing the information which was for some reason held by the state because of its value to reveal corruption or other irregularities. We were and we are very adversarial when it comes to the lack of knowledge about where taxpayers’ money goes. But definitely we will try other methods if we want to demand data in a reusable form. Because everything has its own specifics. We can’t narrow our discussion to the two sides of advocacy efforts. We have to adapt to the reality we live in. We have to consider it depending on a country (municipality) we are operating in, on a specific public office that posses data and a particular set of data. We can’t however, sacrifice the Freedom of Information, be non-adversarial and just nice and then maybe get something and just be happy about it. This line distinguishes clearly the higher priority of the Human Rights aspect of FOI, from its technical aspect of Open Data. We don’t think that in the following years, we could swap places of these two aspects on the podium.
Good Change Without a Scandal IS Possible
Definitely the United States or the rest of „old democracies” have different legal and political culture than the CEE countries, but surprisingly it does not mean that our are less democratic. Our experiences with implementing the FOIA are just so much different from the ones mentioned by Tom Steinberg. No scandal has happened, no significant internal or external measures were taken in 2001 when representatives of media, NGO’s and political parties sat together and wrote the bill on access to public information. And they did elaborate quite a good piece of legislation. Each year Polish courts rule in favor of citizens in thousands of cases in which public officials are restricting access to information.
Paradoxically, we believe that these huge numbers are not the proof of the weakness of the system, but of the power of the people who use their right to know. Is it adversarial? We do not think so. It is tough and demanding? Not more than going to the European Court of Human Rights because of the police torturing detainees. Citizens just use tools that are available to them. It is true however that the perception of whether atool is adversarial or not is a matter of subjective opinion. The more secretive the government, the more vexatious a simple FOI requests would be in the eyes of the public officials. Asking for more (like re-usable form of data or simply more information) can be perceived as a declaration of a civil war with the institution, or worse: with the decision makers themselves. There is nothing objective, nor is there a clear division between black and white in this perception unfortunately.
At the same time the concept of the Open Data is relatively new in the CEE countries and basing on the experience from the last ten years we can diagnose that going to a court to get the data might be less effective. Not that it is adversarial or demanding but because even with a sentence from the court, public officials don’t understand why Open Data are important, how to prepare them and how to release them in user-friendly manner. The technical side, lack of funds and experts also play important role in this transition. Because of this complex situation, we preferred to start with education, and sometimes with creating Open Data from FOI. We are still giving the administration time to catch-up and we are cheering for them. We don’t refrain from the tougher methods like going to the court, but we decided to start from the position of understanding.
Together We’re Stronger
What is for sure seen as adversarial, if not crazy, it’s standing there alone. That is why building large coalitions was what proved to be the most efficient, hence worth undertaking the effort. It is not easy to do it, it means being open with each other in a search for FOI and Open Data. It requires modesty and constant dialogue as well as reflection on where the goal is in the changing circumstances. Only this inner-work brings true public support to the cause and builds the perception of a wide public demand, changing what is perceived to be extreme in both the substance and the form.
this post was written in collaboration with Anna Kuliberda