The ultimate aim of any human society should be to ensure the prosperity, freedom and fulfilment for all of its members.
Our shared natural, economic and social resources are part of a common inheritance or ‘commonwealth’, therefore we as
citizens must be involved in tangible ways in decisions affecting them. However, it is becoming more and more apparent
that representative democracies around the world, including New Zealand’s, are not capable of fulfilling this objective.
Our political systems are broken and are leading to gross wealth inequality, disenfranchisement and a failure to meet
the basic needs of huge segments of society.
A distinct lack of open, inclusive and transparent political and economic systems is emerging as a key factor in this
growing crisis of modern, liberal democracies. Meanwhile the anger and despair created by this situation is ironically
being exploited by those who would lead us towards authoritarianism and further away from the more inclusive
institutions we need. In this context the growing global movement for open government; or more inclusive, accountable
and transparent politics becomes highly important as a concept to inoculate us from the spreading virus of fascism.
A Crisis of Exclusion
Most modern representative political systems and institutions increasingly exclude ordinary citizens from the democratic
process. Many accuse these same systems, however, of providing VIP access to global finance (capital) and corporations
(private sector) to information and ability to influence decisions. This imbalance results in a capital-biased system
that makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to participate meaningfully in democracy or the economy as anything but
exploitable resources. This exclusion of huge segments of society (particularly the young and the poor) from
participating in economic or political life, limits potential for real human prosperity and development.
Former UK Diplomat turned Anarchist and direct democracy advocate, Carne Ross, argues in his movie Accidental Anarchist
that our system of representative democracy is broken. Ross draws from his firsthand experience including advising the
Blair Government around the Iraq war to highlight the failures of representative democracies worldwide. Ross also points
out that there is a wealth of proven real world examples of the success of more open and participatory democratic
practices to draw from in designing better systems.
Why it Matters to New Zealand
New Zealand is certainly no exception to this trend of exclusion with voter engagement and political participation at an
all time low. New Zealand has historically performed well in transparency, however we certainly do not have a perfect
democracy. A 2016 study
commissioned by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) found only 8 per cent of
respondents had "complete or lots of trust" in MPs. Only 10 per cent trusted ministers and 12 per cent trusted local
Max Rashbrooke, also of the IGPS, recently published an excellent report on open government in this country. Bridges Both Ways: Transforming the Openness of New Zealand Government
identifies a series of major problems in New Zealand around transparency and accountability of government. The report
highlights a lack of opportunity in our system for public participation or genuine two-way dialogue between the public
and decision-makers. Rashbrooke states: “But the country cannot be blind to serious – and growing – failings. There is
evidence that it is not properly fostering a political culture where citizens can access the information they need and
public participation is encouraged.”
“Throughout the western world, democracy is facing challenging times. People are trusting politicians and political
processes less than they used to. Brexit and Donald Trump are symptoms. New Zealand is not immune to these trends. We
may be relatively free of corruption, but our democracy is not as robust as it could be.”
Inoculating Against Fascism
The Trumpocalypse, Brexit and other global stirrings of fascism show that many people feel dissatisfied with and
disenfranchised by their lack of agency in the current political system and are crying out for an alternative. The
alternative we are at risk of sliding into, however, is ironically a neo-fascist, authoritarian state predicated on
inequality, low citizen awareness and engagement, increased surveillance and corporate control.
Open government on the other hand potentially offers an alternative organising system that could increase equality,
participation and the ability of the public to control their own destiny. This alternative is more radically open and
democratic than current systems and will give citizens back a degree of the agency they seek in an our seemingly out of
control world. It may also help restore trust in the ability of elected officials to represent our interests, which is
understandably low. Adopting more open governance practices and institutions will thus make our society less susceptible
to authoritarian populists and con artists with false promises and hidden agendas.
Open government is democratising and emancipatory as it enhances real opportunities for citizens and civil society
organisations to solve problems for how we organise our society on a local scale. It allows us to be informed and
involved in democracy and decision making on a more meaningful basis than simply voting once every 3 years. The idea is
that if people are more engaged and informed, then they will be more vested in and put more energy into enhancing
society positively through participation and innovation.
So, What Actually Is Open Government?
Open government is essentially the extent to which citizens can see what is being done with public money and resources,
what decisions are being made on our behalf and the ability to take part in shaping those decisions. An open government
has traditionally been understood as one with high levels of transparency and mechanisms for public scrutiny and
oversight in place, with an emphasis on government accountability. However, these days this definition also includes the
extent to which there are opportunities for public participation in the process.
To quote Max Rashbrooke, “Making government ‘open’ is about ensuring that, where practical and appropriate, the core
decisions of politics are made in full view of the public. That means key information is available, political decisions
are free from corruption, the public can hold its leaders accountable, and ordinary people are directly involved in
making decisions as often as possible. Ultimately this makes government more honest, more effective and more
Open government is not a new concept – with roots back to Aristotle, Socrates and the earliest flourishing of western
democratic principles as well to Chinese antiquity. However, the modern concept emerged in enlightenment Europe with
Sweden enacting the first Freedom of the Press legislation in 1766. Enlightenment thinking influenced the French and US
revolutions in which the people wrested some power from absolutist monarchs. A degree of budgetary transparency and
press freedom were achieved in these movements. However, it was not until the 1950s and 60s civil rights movements that
further rights such as Freedom of Information laws, national regulatory systems, and accountable public processes were
gained. These democratic rights underpinning our representative democracies are now largely taken for granted, however,
they have invariably been the result of hard fought concessions to citizen-led movements demanding more transparency and
Very few governments in history have voluntarily opened up. As the Snowden revelations demonstrated, there is an
inherent tendency of governments (even supposedly progressive ones such as the Obama administration) to lapse, whenever
possible, into secrecy and authoritarianism. Most of these victories came about only after intense periods of struggle,
revolution, scandal, elections, and civil society organising.
We appear to be in another period of such revolutionary change to our governance structures presently. On the one hand a
crisis of surveillance, exclusion, disenfranchisement and authoritarianism is threatening these hard fought freedoms.
However, simultaneously a new and more open way of government is struggling to be born and could provide a wholesale
restructure of the global political and economic fabric. It is up to us to decide which one of these future societies we
want to live in.
Gov 2.0 - A New System is Possible
The open government concept is constantly evolving with political consciousness and technological movements and
developments. New developments in the E-Government space have opened up further possibilities for innovations to provide
meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate on a mass scale in decisions affecting society.
New concepts such as open data, open innovation, collaborative democracy and collaborative budgeting are some of the
approaches that can be harnessed by governments seeking more collaborative strategies for working with the public. This
new approach to government looks toward a future of radical openness where citizens are directly engaged in democratic
decisions and in shaping their communities in tangible ways.
Actually - It’s Already Here!
Switzerland has been experimenting with direct democracy in the national political system for a number of years. Despite
notable issues with populism and xenophobia, this referenda based approach to democracy has resulted in strong political
and democratic engagement by the community. The checks and balances on power imposed by this system are widely thought
to have led to a higher quality of representative governance than in most other Western nations.
Political parties proposing overhaul of democratic processes have attracted increasing amounts of disillusioned voters
recently. Both Podemos in Spain and Iceland’s Pirate Party ran on platforms of direct democracy and divesting decision
making to the people. On the party’s website
, Pirate Party leader Jónsdóttir said “We do not define ourselves as left or right but rather as a party that focuses on the systems. In other words, we
consider ourselves hackers — so to speak — of our current outdated systems of government.” Both parties attracted huge support and were only narrowly prevented from forming governments by the refusal of
establishment politicians on either the left or right to collaborate due to fear of the radical change they represented.
Other notable examples include the even more radically decentralised local Spanish direct democracy movements Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comu. Even the Sanders and Corbyn movements to a lesser extent have achieved huge followings by attempting to divest more
power to the grass roots within a traditional party structure. Both have come up against strong resistance from the
power structures of their own parties for this very reason.
Open Data and Open Government in Taiwan
Taiwan is a shining example of what can be achieved in a short time by opening up government processes to citizens
through a combination of open government principles and high tech innovation. Since Taiwan’s 2014 occupy style uprising
– ‘the sunflower movement’ - a number of former occupiers have gone on to hold political office and a wave of direct
democracy and collaborative budgeting initiatives has infected government systems. In this same period, Taiwan has also
surged from 36th place to first place globally on British advocacy group Open Knowledge International’s “open data”
One of Taiwan’s most recent officials Audrey Tang
holds the newly created position of ‘Digital Minister’
. Tang is a transgender, former child prodigy computer programmer and community organiser and was instrumental in the ‘g0v
’ and VTaiwan
movements, which created a highly successful ‘shadow government’ to listen to and engage citizens in decision-making.
G0v “pushes information transparency, focusing on developing information platforms and tools for the citizens to
participate in society.” Audrey Tang delivered this excellent talk
on Taiwan’s open government revolution at the Open Source Open Society conference in Wellington in 2016.
Many progressive cities around the world such as Porto Alegre, Brazil
have already had great success with participatory budgeting and have inspired other cities in Brazil and elsewhere to
adopt the approach. This innovation directly incorporates citizens into public meetings where they decide how to
allocate public funds. Neighbourhoods get together each week to analyse the previous annual budget and discuss the
future one. They delegate representatives to present the proposal to the city assembly, which in turn determines which
programmes will be funded.
A new study of participatory institutions in Brazil over a decade has found that cities like Porto Alegre with
participatory budgeting programmes improve the lives of their citizens and decrease inequality. Cities that adopted the
approach over the past decade have invariably allocated more funds to education and sanitation, decreased infant
mortality, improved Municipal facilities and water and sewer connections. The focus of the extra spending have been
largely in areas with lower income and fewer public services, usually neglected by traditional city budgets. The study
also outlines that participatory budgeting’s influence strengthens over time, which indicates that it is allowing
governments, citizens, and civil society organisations to build new institutions that produce better forms of
In 2016, Portugal took participatory budgeting further by announcing the world’s first nationwide participatory
budgeting (PB) process even including ATM-based voting to increase voter turnout. This innovation will give government
decision makers a better idea of what rural and urban people respectively want and need in their lives and communities.
This is an important step as it unleashes the potential of breaking down the damaging divide between urban and rural
communities so common in today’s democracies. This approach could conceivably avoid the situation witnessed in the USA
where many rural communities rightly felt unheard and reacted by backing Trump.
Democratic Confederalism in the Middle East
Perhaps this century’s most radical and most promising innovation in democratic and governance reform comes from an area
mostly written off as a basket case, the Middle East. Rojava is a non-nation state aligned self-governing territory
comprising the three Kurdish-majority cantons of Northern Syria. Rather than the nation state or ethnic grouping, the
people in Rojava are identifying as citizens in a collectively defined form of direct democracy called democratic
confederalism. This new and yet timeless system of government was inspired by the writings of New York Anarchist scholar
Murray Bookchin as well as traditional tribal practices common to many indigenous societies.
Power in Rojava is as decentralised as possible, spanning from village assemblies and communes to legislative councils
and commissions running the economy, defence, and justice ministries. At all levels in this secular system, ethnic,
religious and gender balance is maintained. Rojava is perhaps best known for its People’s Protection Units comprised of
both male and female fighters who have been instrumental in the ground battle against ISIS in the region. Could this
seed of a new progressive democratic experiment spread across the region (and beyond) neutralising religious, cultural
and nation-state related tensions? That will depend on the support this experiment receives from the various global
How Openness Leads to Resilience and Growth
Societies with transparent economic and political systems have been shown to have higher levels of prosperity than those
with closed and extractive systems. In Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson propose that inclusive economic and political institutions (such as those in
modern Scandinavian democracies) lead to prosperity. In other words, they state that prosperous nations have “political
institutions that distribute power broadly in society and subject it to constraints” and economic institutions “that
allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents
and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish.”
In contrast, they state that prosperity and stability is adversely hindered by extractive and exclusive economic
institutions and policies - ie those “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society [the masses] to
benefit a different subset [the governing elite].” The conclusion reached is that attempting to engineer prosperity
without confronting the root causes - extractive institutions and the politics that keeps them in place—is unlikely to
It is increasingly accepted that New Zealand’s major political parties are still firmly in the grip of neoliberal
political ideology. This flawed ideology has failed to deliver prosperity but has successfully extracted wealth from the
masses to a small elite. If we believe the above, then the way to reach true prosperity is to abandon this neoliberal
ideology underpinning our current approach to organising the economy. This would require adopting a much more open and
inclusive political system that would provide the confidence and stability necessary to encourage citizens and investors
to generate prosperity.
How Open Government Could Benefit NZ
Open government enables political and economic participation and fosters citizen engagement, innovation and economic
development. If a government is open, it gives citizens access to participate in improving the way it works, and access
to the information it creates and collects. Broadening such access makes a government more accountable, efficient, and
trusted, and even helps to improve the economy.
If we want citizens (especially younger ones) to engage in politics we need to seriously think about ways to open up our
government processes in ways relevant to them. In the Bridges Both Ways report, Max Rashbrooke proposes five ‘key ideas’
aimed at increasing the openness and participatory nature of government in New Zealand. These practical and achievable
solutions are: crowdsourced bills, participatory budgeting, a ‘Public Opinion’ Budget, a ‘Kōrero Politics’ Day and
democratising party funding. Such innovations could indeed help to get more Kiwis interested and involved again so that
democratic participation becomes about more than voting once every few years.
Open, transparent government is inextricably linked to voter turnout according to Massey University local government
specialist Associate Professor Christine Cheyne. Dr Cheyne says key elements of open government include the quality of
public engagement, the quality of education on 'civics' (especially in relation to local democracy) in schools; access
to data from public funded sources and research; and ensuring that there is a genuine basis for participation by civil
society organisations and citizens in government processes.
The opening up of data and government software and intellectual property would provide opportunities for local companies
to build services that improve the lives of citizens and make interacting with decision makers easier. We should be
supporting local companies innovating in the open government and open source technology space to work closely with
government to this end. This would lead to the creation of a ‘data commons’ which could help government, communities and
businesses to work collaboratively and thrive. I covered the value of an open source approach to government in this
article on the Government’s new open data principles.
Reverting to a more open approach to democracy and economy is essential to re-localisation. It will reenergise and
distribute innovation across both urban and rural areas and give more space for diverse approaches to living to develop.
An open government approach also has a lot in common with the more participatory and inclusive decision making processes
of Māori and Pasifika culture. Adopting this practice would enhance the democratic rights of Māori and many other
marginalised groups and would be a positive step towards creating a more fair and equal society.
What is Holding Open Government Back?
Unfortunately, New Zealand has shown little interest over the past decade in keeping up with the latest developments. As
a result we are failing to adapt to the necessities, let alone the exciting opportunities presented by open government
in a modern digital society. Meanwhile other countries are making great progress in this area and we are no longer
playing the leadership role expected of us as early pioneers in open government. The mainstream political and media
power bloc in New Zealand, however, has been highly resistant to any changes in the direction of greater citizen
participation in politics. This would explain why there has been so little debate in political or media circles on the
issue and why many Kiwis are not even aware of the exciting potential of open government.
The benefits and implementation of a more open and distributed government system are not really in question; all that is
lacking is the political will from those with power to make changes. In this video Carne Ross summarises the reason
politicians are so resistant to adopting more open government; “Politicians won’t make this happen, Turkeys don’t vote
Getting To Open?
There are many benefits to this necessary transition to open government, not least of which is the fact that the
alternative of an increasingly authoritarian society is highly unappealing. With the combined potential of new
technology and increased public appetite for a more open and participatory system we could be on the verge of a great
leap forward in the way we organise our society. We now have enough know how, technology and resources to make
participation in governance a seamless and effortless daily reality for all members of the planet.
However, it is up to us as citizens to claim this right from the political establishment and create a more level playing
field where all citizens can participate in politics and the economy. We must make it clear in no uncertain terms that
the wishes of the people are to be more involved and engaged in political decision making at every level as agents
rather than as exploitable units. To do this we need to ensure sensible and accurate public discussion of open
government issues occurs in both the political and media realms. As Rashbrooke concludes in the Bridges Both ways
report, with the general election around the corner, now is the perfect time for a wider discussion on this topic.
Whatever the makeup of the next Government, we need to ensure that our representatives understand the importance of the
need for a radical rethink of the system so that citizens are placed at the centre of political decision-making in New
This article was completed with the help of crowdfunding raised at the Open Source Open Society Conference in 2016. It
is also part of Scoop’s campaign to increase transparency, accountability and participation in 2017 General election
coverage. Learn more about what we are doing by visiting the “Opening The Election” page on Scoop.