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Using Technology to Create More Open Government

May 28, 2012, 12:00 AM

Across the world, technology has transformed the relationship between consumers and businesses. The opportunities it provides to connect with each other instantly are changing how we do business and how we live our lives. By putting power in the hands of billions of consumers, new technology has driven down prices while increasing the choice and quality of goods and services.  Businesses are also gaining by being able to learn more about their customers and their preferences.

While individuals as consumers are already reaping these benefits, they are yet to do so as citizens. Governments have been slow to see the advantages that openness brings for their countries. Some, to be frank, remain suspicious of the power it hands to individuals and communities.

Slowly we are seeing this change. Last year, a small number of governments including the United States joined the Open Government Partnership to promote openness and improved engagement with their citizens. 42 new countries joined the partnership at a recent conference in Brazil attended by Hillary Clinton.

The initiative is still in its early days. But by improving accountability and transparency, it has rich potential to improve public services, ensure money is spent wisely and break down the barriers between the government and the governed. At a time when public finances are tight, these are goals of crucial importance. 

Having seen first-hand what can be achieved if we can better connect people, I am excited by its potential. The success of eBay was based on confidence in people and creating a network to enable them to come together. Millions of consumers have gained from sharing their passions.  Consumers have gained from sharing their passions and interests.  Thousands of new businesses have been able to compete on a level playing field, challenging the dominance of established players.

New technology gives us previously unimaginable opportunities to magnify the power of every individual. There will always be a tiny minority who might abuse this opportunity. But our experience at eBay is that the overwhelming majority use this power responsibly. We must have the confidence to harness this ability to give people a voice. If we do, the rewards will be enormous. 

Governments which tap into the collective expertise and experience of their citizens will make better decisions. Increased transparency, participation and accountability will increase protection against corruption and waste. 

Through the Open Government Partnership, citizens are trusted to help strengthen their countries. But using the opportunities that technology brings to share information is only one half of the equation. We will only reap fully all these rewards if citizens, civil society and businesses use this information to monitor progress, hold those making decisions to account and, where needed, to encourage change.  

Transparency is vital but so is the active engagement and participation of citizens.

It is vitally important, too, that we work at both a national and local level to help provide the skills and tools to use this data and the opportunities it brings to make a positive impact on lives and communities. This means developing the tools and partnerships which make this new era of active citizen engagement a reality. It is something Omidyar Network, which encourages the use of technology and markets to foster social change, is already supporting in many countries.  

We are already seeing examples of what can be achieved and the difference it can make. Here in the US, for instance, Omidyar Network is supporting SeeClickFix which enables the processing of citizen complaints and reports through to city and state level authorities. 

This is only the beginning. The ability to encourage governments to allow citizens to shape rather than just accept the services they receive holds great potential. We have seen a revolution in the way businesses and consumers interact. If we can harness the same power to improve standards of governance, we can help create jobs and transform the quality of life of millions of people.

Stephen King is a partner at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm started by eBay Founder Pierre Omidyar.


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