What will a new US-India partnership on open government mean to the two countries? Shared resources, shared technologies, and maybe, a culture that trends towards a more open, accountable and participatory government.
No one who has watched the progress of open government in the United States would posit that it’s been an easy path. In India, the challenges are, if anything, even greater, given the immensity of the issues posed to the country’s population by poverty or literacy, a legacy of bureaucratic intransigence or outright corruption. There’s a reality behind Ipaidabribe.com Indian website that speaks volumes about that culture.
That said, there are many reasons to be hopeful about this open government partnership, particularly around the growth of mobile technology as a means of reporting issues.
As Nancy Scola points out at techPresident, learning Indian-style open government offers many opportunities to adopt the rapidly evolving platforms for mobile citizen participation from India.
For a sense of how such platforms can grow, look no further than Ushahidi, which was originally created to be an election reporting platform in Kenya.
Now we’ve got a joint statement from Obama and Singh, striking in how it frames the United States as a junior partner in the open government partnership. It noticeably credits the progress India has made in using technology to empower democratic engagement while striking a decidely more aspirational tone when it comes to the Obama adminstration’s work in the open government field: “This will build on India’s impressive achievements in this area in recent years and the commitments [link] that the President made to advance an open government agenda at the United Nations General Assembly.”
That statement is embedded below:
In his remarks to a joint session of the Indian parliament in New Delhi, President Obama elaborated further on his vision for an Indian-US partnership on open government:
In the United States, my administration has worked to make government more open and transparent and accountable to people. Here in India, you’re harnessing technologies to do the same, as I saw yesterday at an expo in Mumbai. Your landmark Right to Information Act is empowering citizens with the ability to get the services to which they’re entitled — (applause) — and to hold officials accountable. Voters can get information about candidates by text message. And you’re delivering education and health care services to rural communities, as I saw yesterday when I joined an e-panchayat with villagers in Rajasthan.
Now, in a new collaboration on open government, our two countries are going to share our experience, identify what works, and develop the next generation of tools to empower citizens. And in another example of how American and Indian partnership can address global challenges, we’re going to share these innovations with civil society groups and countries around the world. We’re going to show that democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for the common man —- and woman.
The question, as ever, is what this will practically mean when the glow induced by lofty rhetoric fades and the hard work of open government moves forward. The US-Indian open government dialog might mean more open source collaboration. As Information Week reported, a US-India partnership on open government practically includes $1 million dollars “toward public efforts to share best practices in working toward improved services and democratic accountability.” In the United States, that might not go very far. In the Indian subcontinent, it might be enough to seed funding for a number of mobile platforms to grow.
As Steve Ressler pointed out at Govloop, the mobile aspect of open government mainstream deserves special note. Why? Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed on the growth of mobile technology in India highlighted the same thing that Scola did: the potential to leapfrog a generation in wireless tech and see the creation of many new businesses:
India today is this unusual combination of a country with millions of people making $2 and $3 a day, but with a growing economy, an increasing amount of cheap connectivity and a rising number of skilled technologists looking to make their fortune by inventing low-cost solutions to every problem you can imagine. In the next decade, I predict, we will see some really disruptive business models coming out of here — to a neighborhood near you. If you thought the rate of change was fast thanks to the garage innovators of Silicon Valley, wait until the garages of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore get fully up to speed. I sure hope we’re ready.
If just a few of those mobile entrepreneurs focus on creating platforms for open government, the civic surplus of hundreds of millions of citizens in India and abroad could be harnessed to co-create government on a scale never witnessed before in history. There are reasons to be be skeptical, naturally, but the opportunity is there.