Our city governments must ditch culture of opacity, embrace concept of open data.
“Government ought to be all outside and no inside…Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety.”- Woodrow Wilson, former US president, 1913.
The openness that Wilson spoke of in the early 1900s is being actively sought after even 10 decades later. The concept of open data has been gaining momentum among local governments in recent years, but cities in India stubbornly cling onto their culture of opacity.
Open data refers to the process by which governments disclose information that is relevant to citizens and stakeholders in the public domain. This is crucial as it injects more transparency into governance, thereby making administrators more accountable. Opening up documents, budgets and decisions also helps spread awareness about government processes among citizens, thus giving them a sense of ownership and participation towards their city.
India has taken some strides towards openness by enacting the Right to Information Act, 2005 and also by launching the open data portal www.data.gov.in by the National Informatics Centre. But such transparency has largely been restricted to the national and state levels, not percolating to the working of local governments which determine the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens. The data portal, for instance, discloses information from 69 departments, 63 belonging to the Centre and three to state governments with no data from municipal governments.
India’s lack of openness has come to the fore recently. The Open Data Index created by the Open Knowledge Foundation in 2013 to evaluate the availability and accessibility of information ranked India a lowly 63rd out of 70 countries. More recently, the annual survey of India’s city systems by Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based urban advocacy organisation, highlighted how Indian cities are still far from achieving global standards of openness.
The public disclosure law (PDL) is a case in point. Janaagraha in its report released in early June analysed 21 Indian cities and found that 15 of them were covered by this law, but only eight have bothered notifying rules. Larger cities including Delhi, Kolkata and Ahmedabad are till date not covered by any such legislation. PDL is meant to facilitate public dissemination of operational and financial details of municipal services to citizens, promote efficiency in services, and allow comparison of municipal performance over time.
The Centre had drafted a model PDL towards this end, requiring cities to disclose their audited financial statements on a quarterly and annual basis, their service level benchmarks as well as details of major works. Sadly, laws covering only four cities (Mumbai, Pune, Patna and Ranchi) fully comply with this model legislation.
Political leaders who should be leading by example too prefer to hide behind closed doors. Municipal councillors do not disclose related party interests, making it near impossible for citizens to grasp whether political decisions are influenced by conflict of interest. Contrast this with London where the pecuniary interests of each councillor are openly available on the website of the Greater London Authority, with a detailed break-up of contracts and corporate ties they may hold or sponsorship they may have received.
A lack of information isn’t the only hurdle towards build-ing effective citizen-government ties. Community participation too is seriously wanting.
While 16 large cities have passed the community participation law, no city except Hyderabad has constituted area sabhas to involve citizens in policymaking at the neighbourhood level. Citizens rarely know where or how their city government spends the money it collects by way of taxes.
Pune is the only city where citizens are involved in the budgeting process, that too on the initiative of NGOs like Janwani. This is despite laws mandating public disclosure and despite citizen participation being a reform condition under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
This opacity is dismal at a time when cities across the world are investing all energies in open government practices. Participatory budgeting in municipal budgets was initiated as way back as 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil and nearly 1,000 cities including Montreal, Seville, Chicago and NYC have used it since.
Chicago was one of the first municipalities to appoint a chief data officer in 2012 and discloses useful data including boundaries of beat police officials, the status of pothole repairs, and city-owned land inventory.
“The city will post online and in easy- to-use formats the information that Chicagoans need most.
For example, complete budget documents will be available in straightforward and searchable formats. The city’s website will allow anyone to track and find information on lobbyists and what they are lobbying for as well as which government officials they have lobbied,” promised mayor Rahm Emanuel in his elaborately laid out Chicago transition plan of 2011.
New York took a similar step with the council approving a local law that required agencies to open up all their data by 2018. Whether India will follow the global trail of openness only time will tell.