A short story about Open Washing

Great news! The International Open Data Conference (IODC) accepted my proposal about Open Washing. The moment I heard this I wanted to write something to invite everyone to our session. It will be a follow-up to the exchange we had during IODC in 2015.

First a couple disclaimers: This text is not exactly about data. Open Washing is not an easy conversation to have. It’s not a comfortable topic for anyone, whether you work in government or civil society. Sometimes we decide to avoid it (I’m looking at you, OGP Summit!). To prepare this new session I went through the history of our initial conversation. I noticed that my awesome co-host, Ana Brandusescu summarised everything here. I invite you to read that blogpost and then come back. Or keep reading and then read the other post. Either way, don’t miss Ana’s post.

What comes next is a story. I hope this story will illustrate why these uncomfortable conversations are important.

Second disclaimer: everything in this story is true. It is a fact that these things happened. Some of them are still happening. It is not a happy story, and I’m sorry if some people might feel offended by me telling it.

There was once a country that had a pretty young democracy. That country was ruled by one political party for 70 years and then, 18 years ago decided it was enough. Six years ago, that political party came back. They won the presidential election. How this happened is questionable but goes beyond the reach of this story right now.

When this political party regained power the technocrats thought this was good news. Some international media outlets thought the new president would even “save” the country. The word “save” may sound like too much but there was a big wave of violence that had built from previous years. Economic development was slow and social issues were boiling. There was a big relationship of this to corruption in many levels of government.

In this context, there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The president’s office decided to make open government a priority.

Open data would be a tool to promote proactive transparency and economic development. They signed all the international commitments they could. They chaired international spaces for everything transparency related. They set up a team with young and highly prepared professionals to turn all this into reality.

But then, the tunnel seemed to extend and the light seemed dimmer. In spite of these commitments some things that weren’t supposed to happen, happened. Different journalistic researches found out what seemed like acts of corruption. A government contractor gave the president 7 million dollar house during the campaign. The government awarded about 450 million USD in irregular contracts. Most of these contracts didn’t even result in actual execution of works or delivery of goods. They spied on people from the civil society groups that collaborated with them. 45 journalists, who play a big role in this story, were murdered in the last 6 years. For doing their job. For asking questions that may be uncomfortable for some people.

There is a lot more to the story but I will leave it here. That doesn’t mean it ends here. It’s still happening. It seems like this political party doesn’t care about using open washing anymore. They don’t care anymore because they’re leaving. But we should care because we stay. We need to talk and discuss this in the open. The story of this country, my country, is very particular and surreal but holds a lot of lessons.

This is probably the worst invitation you’ve ever received. But I know there are a lot of lessons and knowledge out there. So if you are around, come to our session during IODC. If you’re not, talk about this issue where you live. Or reach out to others who might be interested. It probably won’t be comfortable but you will for sure bring a new perspective to your work. This is also an invitation to try it.