The Value of Open Governance: Adaptive Learning and Development

Alan Hudson at Global Policy:Open governance is governance that puts into practice principles of transparency, participation and accountability. Proponents of open governance tend to make their case on the basis of two sets of arguments. Normative, or intrinsic value, arguments hold that open governance is a good thing in itself. The idea here is that people have a right to open governance, regardless of its outcomes. Instrumental, or extrinsic value, arguments make the case that open governance is important because it contributes to better outcomes; less corruption, lower poverty, greater prosperity, for instance.

Both sets of arguments have their weaknesses. My aim in this post is to outline these vulnerabilities and then to suggest an alternative way of thinking about the value of open governance, a conceptual framework that has practical implications for those of us working to harness the potential of open governance.

On the intrinsic side, the idea that open governance, or rights, are good things in themselves is questionable. Normative arguments can be useful, but not everyone thinks that the same things are “good” (see my post on moving “beyond the Good Governance mantra” for more). This is particularly problematic when normative arguments are made about the form that governance should take, rather than the functions that it should enable (see Matt Andrews on “hippos in the Sahara”). On the extrinsic side, the evidence about whether more open governance leads to better development outcomes remains decidedly patchy, despite substantial investments in exploring “what works”. We need, I would argue, to think not just harder, but also differently, about the ways in which open processes of governance can make a difference.

In some cases, organizations (including Global Integrity at times) hedge their bets, asserting both that citizens have a right to open governance and that open governance can lead to better development outcomes. This can be a reasonable argument to make, and may have some pragmatic benefits, but it has led to a situation where the theory of change about how open governance can contribute to better development outcomes remains unclear and under-examined. This has contributed to unrealistic expectations being placed on the open governance agenda, and complicates the task of marshaling the evidence to assess what works in order to inform more effective action. On the ground this can mean that investments in supporting the open governance agenda are misdirected and fail to deliver the expected benefits….

Open governance matters, not because it is a good thing in itself, or because it leads directly to better development outcomes (it rarely does). Instead, open governance matters because it enhances the ability of communities, to try, learn and adapt their way towards better development outcomes. This, it should be noted, is always about using evidence to navigate and engage with the prevailing political dynamics….(More)”