Democratic reform is a major requirement for the future of countries keen to provide a decent life for their citizens. Democratic rule based on the principles of transparency, accountability, and public participation is the only way to build societies capable of facing future challenges in the twenty-first century, and it is the only guarantee for the members of these societies to enjoy their rights and freedoms, which in turn guarantee them a decent life.
The need to reform and develop the democratic governance model emerged in the aftermath of World War II, and in the framework of the debate about ways to achieve this, the term open government began to be used for the first time. Countries began to legislate right-to-know laws that recognize the right of their citizens to access government data and information in the century’s sixties. The current century has also witnessed, since its first decade until today, growing efforts to develop the concept of open government by taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the great advances in the field of information and communications technology (ICT). Accordingly, the concept of open data was incorporated in the perceptions and initiatives of applying the principle of open government producing the idea of e-Government, which is no longer limited to the principles of transparency and accountability alone, but opens the door to unlimited possibilities for the direct participation of citizens in the management of their governments.
Although many countries of the world have recognized the need to implement the principle of open government, have participated in international initiatives related to it, and have launched their own national initiatives to implement it, the practical on-ground reality is still far from the theoretical model, in various degrees, across different countries. This reality is also still far from taking advantage of the possibilities already available which allow transforming the theoretical concept of open government into a daily reality. One of the biggest obstacles to applying the principle of open government is the prevailing culture both in society in general and in government bureaucratic apparatuses in particular. Therefore, working to change this culture is a first priority for the efforts of making open government a reality, and to release the great potential for progress and growth promised by the application of that concept.
This paper seeks to provide a detailed definition of the concept of open government and the benefits that can be gained by society, its individuals and its various institutions by its application, the obstacles that prevent this, and the available ways to overcome them. The paper also presents models of pioneering practical initiatives in the field of applying the principle of open government in both the United States and the European Union in order to draw lessons learned from these two experiences. Finally, the paper deals with the Egyptian status quo and the obstacles to achieving the principle of open government in its context.
What is Open Government
The concept of “Open Government” includes several principles and practices that generally aim to increase transparency and citizen participation in governmental processes. As one researcher put it, it is related to both “vision”, that is, the transparency that enables citizens to see what is happening within the government, and “voice”, that is, the participation that guarantees that citizens have access to decision-making arenas.
There is no agreed-upon definition among scholars, political stakeholders, and others of open government, but the term generally refers to an environment that allows citizens opportunities to participate in the production and dissemination of information and knowledge from which they have historically been excluded. Governments, civil society organizations as well as related software projects and activists use the term in their literature without feeling the need to add further clarification to it, as many see it as a solution to a wide range of challenges and a means to improve governance and stimulate economic growth.
The concept of open government has evolved from being simply concerned with accessing information and accountability procedures to include a wide range of goals and functions, including public participation, open data, and the improvement of public services and government efficiency. The term is gaining more consensus on its importance among officials, as is evident through the Open Government Partnership, which has grown since its inception in 2011, to now have 76 member countries, and 106 local governments, representing more than two billion people, in addition to thousands of civil society organizations. The Partnership and its members are committed to supporting open government reforms.
The word “open” in the term open government refers to the principles of openness, which means that anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share government information for any purpose. This includes making datasets available for free to view and reuse, with the aim of improving governance and stimulating knowledge-based economic growth.
The concept of open government is closely related to the principle of transparency, which is related to making government work and decision-making visible and understandable to citizens. Transparency is critical to holding government accountable and ensuring that it acts in the interests of its citizens. It allows citizens to monitor government actions, expose corruption, and engage in informed discussions and debates about policies and decisions related to public affairs.
The concept of open government also highlights citizen participation, which is about giving individuals the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making processes that affect them. It recognizes citizens’ right to have a say in how their government is run and that their voices should be heard. Citizen participation can take different forms such as public consultations, participatory budgeting, and collaborative policy making.
The concept of open government is associated with many benefits. It improves democratic governance by developing transparency, accountability, and public participation. It allows citizens to gain greater understanding and influence over the actions of government, leading to more informed and effective policies. The concept of open government also supports innovation and economic growth by opening government data and information to the public, the business community, and civil society organizations for reuse.
Open Government, Open Data, and the Right to Access Information
In many cases, the terms open government, open data, and the right to access information are used interchangeably, but the truth is that they are independent of each other, although there are wide areas of intersection between them, as well as close mutual relations.
Open government as a principle and practice relates to transparency, which makes it closely related to open data and the right to access information. While transparency is necessary to achieve its purpose, open government is also related to the principles of accountability and public participation in decision-making processes in governments and state institutions, and that is not necessarily related to open data or the right to access information, although it is of course closely related to a number of other rights and freedoms.
Similarly, open data intersects with the principle of open government in the space that government data occupies in the wide field of data in general, but open data relates to all forms of data that can be in the interest of the general public to access and which are related to the work and activities of various parties other than government institutions, including Private sector institutions, civil society organizations, scientific research centers and others.
With regard to the right to access information as one of the basic human rights stipulated in Articles No. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, there is no doubt that the realization of the principles of open government and open data contributes to citizens’ enjoyment of this right, but it transcends, in essence, the field of data and information to which both open government and open data are related. On the one hand, it is related to the right to freedom of opinion and expression in an integrated whole that expresses the unity of the right to knowledge, including its production, exchange, and access, in a manner that enables individuals to achieve their potentials and develop their abilities and boost their participation in the process of evolution and development of the human race as a whole.
On the other hand, there is a mutual supportive relationship between the three terms. The right to access information as one of the basic human rights is a moral basis necessary to support the legitimacy of the concepts of open government and open data. The significant practical benefits of implementing open government also underpin how important the right to information is in practice, not just as a moral obligation. Finally, the concept of open data provides the principle of open government with many of its theoretical foundations as well as practical ways to apply it, especially with regard to the means of communication and information technology.
The Benefits of Open Government
The implementation of the principle of open government can have a significant impact on the lives of citizens, businesses, civil society, universities and scientific research, as well as government institutions in various forms. In the following the paper discusses how open government can affect each of these groups.
Open government initiatives aim to increase transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement in the various processes of government. Open access to government information allows citizens to better understand the processes of making both decisions and policies as well as the various activities of government. This improvement in transparency can lead to improvements in citizens’ trust in their governments. When citizens have access to information and a real opportunity to participate politically, they can feel their influence and power and become more actively involved in democratic processes. Open government encourages public participation through mechanisms such as public consultations, participatory budgeting, and collaboration in policy-making processes. This involvement in the processes of government allows citizens to have a say in shaping public policies, making decision-making in government more inclusive of them and more responsive to their needs. Open government also improves the standards of living of citizens by facilitating access to public services and enabling the development of innovative solutions to societal challenges. In addition, open government can enable citizens to hold government accountable and make their choices during elections based on greater knowledge.
Open government can have huge impacts on business. Greater transparency and access to government data can promote a more leveled playing field, enabling businesses to make informed decisions, and spurring innovation. Open government initiatives always involve publishing open data, which businesses can use to develop new products and services. Open data can also enable businesses to identify market opportunities, improve the efficiency of their operations, and thereby drive economic growth. By providing access to information on business laws and regulations as well as by reducing administrative burdens, open government can streamline business operations and improve the ease of doing business. In addition to that, open government could raise the level of trust between business and the government, which would develop an environment conducive to investment and cooperation.
Open government empowers civil society by raising levels of transparency, accountability, and public participation. Civil society organizations play an important role in monitoring and advocating for good governance, and open government initiatives provide them with access to information essential to their work. Open government can strengthen the relationship between civil society and government by creating opportunities for cooperation and dialogue. Civil society organizations can also use data and information to hold the government accountable for its actions, and they can assess the impact of policies and advocate for needed reforms. Open government also enables civil society organizations to engage in participatory processes such as public consultations and collaboration in decision-making processes, giving them a platform to express their concerns and contribute to policy development.
Universities and Scientific Research
Open government has a great impact on scientific research in general. Open access to government data and information provides researchers with valuable resources for empirical studies and evidence-based policy analysis. Researchers can use government data to gain deeper knowledge of social, economic and environmental phenomena, enabling them to conduct reliable research and contribute to the production of knowledge. Open government initiatives also drive cooperation between the academia and government, which fosters partnership in research, innovation and capacity building. By opening government operations to scrutiny by researchers, open government can improve the level of scientific research and contribute to evidence-based decision-making. More than that, open government can provide opportunities for students to interact with real-world data and contribute to addressing societal challenges through research projects and collaborations with government institutions.
Open government has critical implications for government institutions themselves. Open government initiatives require government institutions to adopt more transparent and accountable practices, ensuring that their operations and information are available to citizens. By embracing the principle of open government, government institutions can improve public confidence in them, improve their legitimacy, and develop a positive image of governance. Open government also encourages government institutions to engage with citizens and civil society organizations, thus promoting collaborative governance and joint development of public policies. This collaboration can lead to more effective and efficient decision-making processes, by incorporating different perspectives and experiences. In addition, open government can drive internal government reforms, encouraging the growth of a culture of transparency, innovation, and continuous improvement within government institutions.
Requirements and Obstacles of Open Government
Implementing open government policies requires close attention to many requirements and considerations. In the following, the paper reviews some of the basic requirements and challenges arising from initiating initiatives to implement the principles of open government.
- Policies and legislative frameworks: The application of open government requires the establishment of policies and legislative frameworks that support transparency, accountability, and the availability of government information. Such policies should ensure fair and non-discriminatory access to information and define conditions for its re-use. Challenges in this context include dealing with traditional approaches, catatonic constraints, and practical and technical problems.
- User-Centered Approach: Open government policies should be designed with a user-centered approach and focus on the importance of citizen participation. This includes engaging with stakeholders and understanding their concerns and the difficulties they may face in implementing the required policies. It is also necessary to create an administrative culture based on openness and transparency.
- Data access and quality: Open government requires access to and availability of high-quality data. Governments need to deal with challenges related to the data interoperability, setting standards, the quality of metadata, and ensuring the availability of real data that includes all information.
- Capacity Building: The successful implementation of the Open Government principle and policies requires efforts to build capacity and skills among both government employees and government agencies. This includes training and support programs to understand the policies, technical aspects of data management and compliance with regulations.
- Funding and Resources: It is necessary to provide sufficient funding and adequate resources to support the implementation of open government policies. This includes investment in technological infrastructure, maintenance of data storage and sharing systems, and human resources capabilities.
- Stakeholder Collaboration: Collaboration among various stakeholders including government institutions, academia, industry, and civil society is essential to the successful implementation of open government initiatives. Such cooperation can help in tackling challenges, developing creativity, and ensuring compatibility with the different needs and points of view of the relevant parties.
- Governance and coordination: Effective governance structures and coordination mechanisms are essential for the implementation of open government policies. This includes clear roles and responsibilities, establishing standards and conflict resolution frameworks so different systems may be used consistently, and ensuring transparency and accountability in decision-making processes.
- Alignment with broader policies: Open government policies should align with broader policy goals and priorities. This includes taking into account both the economic, social and environmental dimensions, to ensure that open government initiatives contribute to the achievement of comprehensive and sustainable development goals.
- Overcoming challenges: The application of open government policies leads to the emergence of a number of diverse challenges, such as resistance to change, lack of awareness, technical difficulties, and legal obstacles. Dealing with these challenges requires coordinated efforts, advocacy, and the involvement of stakeholders to build the required support and overcome obstacles.
Experiences of Open Government Initiatives
The United States of America
The United States has undertaken various initiatives and has legislated and implemented several laws to advance the implementation of the principle of open government, improve transparency, and encourage citizen participation. These efforts aimed at improving governance, increasing accountability, and developing trust between government and society.
The most important laws in the United States related to free access to information and open government are:
- Freedom of Information Act: This law gives anyone the right to request access to the records or information of any federal agency, except for records protected by one of nine exceptions by law, or any of three exemptions for private records of law enforcement.
- The Open Government Directive: is one of the important developments in the United States and was issued by former US President Barack Obama on the 8th of December 2009. This directive emphasized the principles of transparency, participation and cooperation as the foundations of open government. The directive called on federal agencies to take coordinated steps to provide public access to government information, to engage citizens in decision-making processes, and to use technology to improve transparency and accountability.
- Open Government Data Act: This law requires federal agencies to publish their information on the Internet as open data, using standard, machine-readable data formats and including their metadata on a dedicated website (Data.gov). The law also requires each agency to develop and maintain a comprehensive data record and to appoint a high-level data officer.
- The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act: This law requires federal agencies to develop and maintain a record of all their data assets, designate a data officer, and establish a data governance framework. It also requires agencies to establish secure data infrastructure and encourage data sharing between agencies.
- Transparency and Government Accountability Act: This law requires states to create a searchable website available to all citizens that makes all relevant information fully available. Each state’s official website should use a consistent domain and present all information in plain English. The website should also have an easy-to-understand user interface, be well-organized, easy to navigate and without annoying add-ons to download.
These laws are intended to increase the availability of federal data, to develop accountability and trust by providing the public with information about government activities and their results, and to improve transparency and to include public participation and cooperation in government activities.
In line with the Open Government Directive, the United States created the United States Utility Rate Database (US URDB) as part of its online Open Energy Information (Open EI) platform. This initiative was intended to provide free access to information on utility pricing rates across the United States. This database contributes to open government by driving transparency in energy-related data and enabling citizens to make informed decisions regarding energy consumption and costs.
Open government in the United States also extends to health care. The application of quality management approaches and tools is fundamental to effective governance in healthcare organizations. These tools help healthcare organizations deal with issues of conflict of interest, mismanagement, lack of accountability, compliance with legislation, and effective decision-making processes. By embedding quality management practices, healthcare organizations can align their operations with open government principles and improve the overall quality of patient care.
In addition to the above, the United States has demonstrated a commitment to the principle of open government by participating in global initiatives. The United States is a member of the Open Government Partnership, a global platform that supports transparency, accountability, and citizen participation. Through its participation in this platform, the United States cooperates with other countries to exchange experiences of best practices and collective work towards achieving the goals of open government.
Open government initiatives in the United States have also used technology to facilitate greater access to information and to support citizen empowerment. The availability of data and the use of technologies such as Big Data and the Semantic Web, which is a standard that aims to make data on the Internet understandable by automated analysis, as well as social media platforms, visual data tools, and analysis tools in their various forms, have provided opportunities for new initiatives to improve transparency, accountability, and citizen participation. These technological innovations have great potential to improve public services, make government operations more streamlined, and drive technological advancement and economic growth.
In addition to initiatives at the federal government level, local governments in the United States have also embraced the principles of open government. Domestic open government policies have shown promising signs of improving administrative processes and the provision of public services, improving the standards of living of citizens, and diversifying their participation in management processes. The proximity of local governments to society allows for greater interaction and cooperation, which empowers citizens as drivers of innovation and creativity in the development of local administration.
The European Union
The European Union has made great efforts to put the principles of open government into practice through legislation, initiatives and practical policies. These efforts aim to advance transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in governance and decision-making processes. This comprehensive approach includes several areas, including business and human rights, public administration, e-government, coordination capabilities, performance management, e-participation, and reducing administrative burdens.
One of the important tools for transnational decision-making used by the European Union is the Open Method of Coordination (OMC), which has been applied in the fields of several policies such as employment, social protection, and education. An open approach to coordination encourages cooperation among member states and aims to induce national policy change in each country through policy coordination at the European level. It can be said that the open approach to coordination can contribute to negotiating the division between written law and unwritten law in the relationship between business and human rights by ensuring a more effective application of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – UNGPs in the European legal framework. Furthermore, an open approach to coordination can address some of the procedural weaknesses currently observed in the implementation of the UN Guidelines process. The European experience of open coordination calls for a reassessment of the relationship between international law and global governance in dealing with business and human rights problems.
In the area of public administration reform, the EU has implemented various initiatives to strengthen transparency, such as legislation on free access to information, open data, and government procurement reforms. The EU has also focused on reforming public services, including measures to reduce the number and cost of government employees, improve performance appraisal processes, introduce codes of conduct, and improve e-governance. These reforms aim to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of public administration, curb corruption, and improve citizens’ access to services.
E-government is another area in which the European Union has made significant progress in applying the principles of open government. The European Union has developed legislation and regulations to improve national e-government systems in its member states, and to ensure that these systems are in line with European laws. The EU has also launched an e-government action plan that aims to provide open, flexible and collaborative e-government services to citizens and businesses. However, despite the increasing levels of e-government readiness across the EU countries, there is still room for improvement in terms of the capacity of systems on the Internet and the extent of their development.
The European Union has also focused on strengthening coordinating capacities of governments and reducing administrative burdens on companies and citizens. These efforts included merging government agencies created during the period of structural reforms, as well as performance management and productivity reforms. And by working on streamlined administrative processes and reducing bureaucratic obstacles, the EU aims to create a more efficient and more suitable environment for business.
In terms of legislative initiatives, the EU introduced the Payment Services Directive (PSD2), which has had a significant impact on the digital transformation of the banking industry across the EU. The directive requires banks to open up their customers’ information to their competitors in the financial market, spurring innovation and better regulation of existing legal frameworks for payment and banking services across Europe. This initiative aims to support competitiveness, innovation, and consumer protection in the banking industry.
The EU has also focused on promoting open government through stakeholder consultations and lobbying. Open consultations are seen as a way to give citizens a voice, increase the legitimacy of European institutions, and ensure broader and deeper political participation. EU LGUs and cities have also undertaken union-level lobbying efforts independently of national governments, taking advantage of the opportunities created by the multi-tiered system of governance and the European Commission’s policy of openness and deliberation.
The European Union also emphasized the importance of good governance and transparency in order to get rid of corruption. Member states are expected to apply the principles of openness and transparency in the activities of their governments. Many countries, such as Denmark, have implemented laws on the transparency of government activities to ensure transparency and accountability.
The EU has also focused its attention on open government data and its potential to support transparency, efficiency and public participation in public administration policies. The reuse of public sector information is considered the cornerstone of the EU’s open data and open government strategies. The EU supported the policies of reusing government information as a basis for the digital economy and a lever for democratic transparency. Efforts have been made to create a spatial data infrastructure for the purposes of the Union’s environmental policies.
In conclusion, the European Union is a distinguished model for enacting legislation, initiating initiatives, and implementing practical policies to encourage the implementation of the principle of open government. The EU’s open government policies span many areas and are characterized by attention to details. In particular, the EU’s approaches to spreading a culture conducive to open government among its member states provide a model for application on a regional or global scale.
Obstacles to Implementing Open Government in the Egyptian Context
The legislation and implementation of open government in Egypt faces multiple challenges and obstacles. While Egypt has taken several steps towards implementing e-government and made some progress in some areas, there are still huge obstacles that hinder the development of open government in the country.
One major drawback is the lack of a comprehensive freedom of information law. Egypt has not yet passed a law guaranteeing the right to access government information and supporting transparency and accountability. The absence of such a law hinders transparency of government activities and limits citizens’ ability to access information about their government’s actions and decisions.
In addition, there are administrative, technical, legal and political obstacles that impede the implementation of open government in Egypt. These constraints include institutional resistance, lack of political will, and bureaucracy that impede the effective implementation of e-government initiatives. These challenges are less technical in nature and more about resistance to change and the need to modify the prevailing way of thinking and culture within government institutions.
In addition, there are governance challenges affecting both the public and private sectors in Egypt. This is despite the fact that the proper application of good governance practices is necessary to attract foreign investments, and at the same time it is a guarantee for applying accountability practices and data transparency, and supporting healthy competitiveness between institutions.
Resistance to change among government employees is another impediment to implementing open government in Egypt. There is a lack of research work on this particular context in Egypt, but studies in other countries have shown that resistance to change can have a significant impact on the implementation of e-government systems. Factors such as gender, employment, level of education, rank, and level of experience can influence employees’ response to implementing new systems.
Financial inclusion also poses a challenge to implementing open government in Egypt. Despite the efforts made by the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Egypt to implement mechanisms for optimal financial use and to support financially excluded sectors of the population, there are still obstacles related to supply and demand that need to be dealt with.
Some of the chronic problems in the Egyptian context, which seem far from the field of open government application, have affected the possibility of achieving them. For example, the management of waste from construction and demolition activities is a major chronic problem in the built environment in Egypt, and it is one of the problems that impedes the existence of effective administrative control over the built environment and with which accurate data on its growth, development and conditions can be provided. This makes applying open government policies to this environment more difficult.
Implementation and evaluation of urban policies, including strategic planning, is another area in which there are obstacles to the implementation of open government in Egypt. The failure to engage stakeholders, whether governmental or non-governmental, is a challenge, and the lack of strategic plans for implementation contributes to the lack of improvement in local economies and environmental conditions. This is generally reflected in the lack of information and data recorded in a way that can be reused, which hinders any endeavor to apply the principles of open government to this very important sector.
The lack of clear urban policies in Egypt has exacerbated urban development problems, including urban poverty. The absence of clear policies and the challenges facing their implementation highlight the need to examine and evaluate urban policies in Egypt to effectively address urban poverty. In addition to this, the lack of clarity and randomness of policies makes transparency about them excluded, and prevents the possibility of organizing any effective participation of citizens in oversight and in decision-making processes.
In general, the reality of political and bureaucratic practices in Egypt is dominated by a systematic, stable trend over decades of obscuring practices, withholding information, limiting access to it, and in many cases falsifying it as well. Likewise, a culture that rejects the principle of responsibility before citizens and the principle of accountability prevails among the political and bureaucratic authorities. The slackness of the Egyptian bureaucracy and the low levels of skill and technical capabilities of its employees prevent the implementation of any open government initiatives that require dealing with data and the tools to save and share it except in the narrowest limits. In addition to the shortage of human resources that have the required capabilities, there is a significant shortage of the necessary financial resources for training programs to remedy the lack of skills, as well as to provide technical needs.
The prevailing culture in society also does not help much to change the prevailing reality in the political and bureaucratic circles. The prevailing culture derives a tendency to dislike transparency in general from the prevailing understanding of religious and social heritage. Society, in its adherence to traditional social hierarchies, reflects a patriarchal culture that excludes the possibility of accountability.
In conclusion, any endeavor to implement the principles of open government in Egypt requires continuous efforts to work towards changing the prevailing culture both in society as a whole and in its political and bureaucratic institutions in particular. One of the entry points to these efforts may be to show that any improvement brought about by the limited applications of e-government in Egypt so far has limits that cannot be crossed without integrating these applications into the broader application of open government. The urgent need felt by state officials and citizens alike to attract foreign investments is an important incentive to emphasize the need to expand the principle of transparency of government information in order to enable the success of efforts seeking to attract these investments.
Open government, including the principles of transparency, accountability and public participation in decision-making, is one of the necessities of progress towards a better future for the world and its societies. The success of open government initiatives around the world may be the only way for world societies to cooperate in facing the major challenges of this century, particularly the catastrophic dangers posed by failure to control climate change. A broader and more effective participation of the public in decision-making processes can push governments towards taking more decisive positions in dealing with the causes of climate change, and in particular this public participation can strike the required balance in pressuring governments in the face of private sector pressures that push in the opposite direction of limiting the economic activities responsible for carbon dioxide emissions which are the most important cause of climate change. Transparency, accountability, and public participation would also put world societies in a better position to deal with expected challenges such as global epidemics of the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the challenges of dangers posed by the rapid development and public deployment of artificial intelligence applications without controls that prevent them from causing harm to their users or to different social groups or causing an increase in poverty rates and impeding economic development in the countries of the South.
On the other hand, the different voices of researchers, who expressed concerns about the prevailing trends in implementing open government policies in many countries of the world, should not be overlooked. There is an absence of balance between initiatives to provide information related to different sectors and not others, as well as an absence of balance between the aspect of making data available and providing practical means and tools for actual benefit by accessing it in more effective participation in administration processes and decision making. The absence of these balances would distort the process of applying the principles of open government, turning it into a false facade hiding what in essence is a reproduction of the prevailing conditions.
In the end, this paper sought to provide a definition as detailed as possible of the concept of open government, and briefly discussed the relationship between this concept and the concepts of open data and the right to access information. The paper reviewed the requirements and challenges of initiatives to implement the principles of transparency, accountability, and public participation on which open government is based. It then presented the two models of the experiences of the United States and the European Union in enacting legislation, launching initiatives and making policies to implement the principles of open government. Finally, the paper discussed the status of open government implementation in the Egyptian context and the obstacles that prevent the success of its initiatives.