Open Government Will Reshape Latin America

Alejandro Guerrero at Medium: “When people think on the place for innovations, they typically think on innovation being spurred by large firms and small startups based in the US. And particularly in that narrow stretch of land and water called Silicon Valley.
However, the flux of innovation taking place in the intersection between technology and government is phenomenal and emerging everywhere. From the marble hallways of parliaments everywhere —including Latin America’s legislative houses— to office hubs of tech-savvy non-profits full of enthusiastic social changers —also including Latin American startups— a driving force is starting to challenge our conception of how government and citizens can and should interact. And few people are discussing or analyzing these developments.
Open Government in Latin America
The potential for Open Government to improve government’s decision-making and performance is huge. And it is particularly immense in middle income countries such as the ones in Latin America, where the combination of growing incomes, more sophisticated citizens’ demands, and broken public services is generating a large bottom-up pressure and requesting more creative solutions from governments to meet the enormous social needs, while cutting down corruption and improving governance.
It is unsurprising that citizens from all over Latin America are increasingly taking the streets and demanding better public services and more transparent institutions.
While these protests are necessarily short-lived and unarticulated —a product of growing frustration with government— they are a symptom with deeper causes that won’t go easily away, and these protests will most likely come back with increasing frequency and the unresolved frustration may eventually transmute in political platforms with more radical ideas to challenge the status quo.
Behind the scene, governments across the region still face enormous weaknesses in public management, ill-prepared and underpaid public officials carry on with their duties as the platonic idea of a demotivated workforce, and the opportunities for corruption, waste, and nepotism are plenty. The growing segment of more affluent citizens simply opt out from government and resort to private alternatives, thus exacerbating inequalities in the already most unequal region in the world. The crumbling middle classes and the poor can just resort to voicing their complaints. And they are increasingly doing so.
And here is where open government initiatives might play a transformative role, disrupting the way governments make decisions and work while empowering citizens in the process.
The preconditions for OpenGov are almost here
In Latin America, connectivity rates are growing fast (reaching 61% in 2013 for the Americas as a whole), close to 90% of the population owns a cellphone, and access to higher levels of education keeps growing (as an example, the latest PISA report indicates that Mexico went from 58% in 2003 to 70% high-schoolers in 2012). The social conditions for a stronger role of citizens in government are increasingly there.
Moreover, most Latin American countries passed transparency laws during the 2000s, creating the enabling environment for open government initiatives to flourish. It is thus unsurprising that the next generation of young government bureaucrats, on average more internet-savvy and better educated than its predecessors, is taking over and embracing innovations in government. And they are finding echo (and suppliers of ideas and apps!) among local startups and civil society groups, while also being courted by large tech corporations (think of Google or Microsoft) behind succulent government contracts associated with this form of “doing good”.
This is an emerging galaxy of social innovators, technologically-savvy bureaucrats, and engaged citizens providing a large crowd-sourcing community and an opportunity to test different approaches. And the underlying tectonic shifts are pushing governments towards that direction. For a sampler, check out the latest developments for Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and (why not?) my own country, which I will include in the review often for the surprisingly limited progress of open government in this OECD member, which shares similar institutions and challenges with Latin America.

A Road Full of Promise…and Obstacles

Most of the progress in Latin America is quite recent, and the real impact is still often more limited once you abandon the halls of the Digital Government directorates and secretarías or look if you look beyond the typical government data portal. The resistance to change is as human as laughing, but it is particularly intense among the public sector side of human beings. Politics also typically plays a enormous role in resisting transparency open government, and in a context of weak institutions and pervasive corruption, the temptation to politically block or water down open data/open government projects is just too high. Selective release of data (if any) is too frequent, government agencies often act as silos by not sharing information with other government departments, and irrational fears by policy-makers combined with adoption barriers (well explained here) all contribute to deter the progress of the open government promise in Latin America…”