Last year, the German government commissioned a fairly extensive study (Link) on open data, and started preparations for an open government data portal. The open data community felt somewhat relieved. After all, lobbying for more open government in Germany, the cradle of prussian bureaucracy, is not exactly an easy task. This is a state apparatus dominated by information silos, dusty hierarchies, pen and paper workflows and an attitude towards citizens that often borders on arrogant. Bravo to the few change agents within the Federal Ministry on the Interior, who over the last months and years have closely collaboratored with a multitude of actors, including app contests and bar camps.
Here is what happened. Actors like the Open Knowledge Foundation (German chapter) had long ago built an open data visualization website (link), and had offered both the Interior as well as the Ministry of Finance, to actually provide that platform to them, basically developing infrastructure for the government. How nice. Community-public-partnership, real open government. What a pipe dream. Last fall, the Ministry of Finance unveiled its own data visualization website, for who knows how many thousand euros in fees paid to web agencies (Update: it cost 40.000 EUR, the original budget was 200.000 EUR ). It looks alright but isn’t as open as experts had hoped, and the amount of data is lackluster – tools for comparison and other accountability-encouraging functionality is missing.
The Ministry of Interior hired the Fraunhofer Institute, a mainly government-funded research tank (famous, among other things, for inventing mp3, however that was a different department) and the Lorenz-von-Stein Institute of Administrative Sciences, to study the benefits, risks and ramifications of open government. The extensive study should pave the way for a pilot program of an official federal government open data portal, that would eventually incorporate or aggregate open data sources on lower levels of government (Germany is a federation of states) – with them sharing the costs (the states were not happy). Fraunhofer and the Interior Ministry (BMI is the German acronym) have recently held a number of “community workshops” to get feedback on their process and involve outside experts in, among other things, clarifying the question of what license to use for the data catalogues. Suffice to say, the government prefers a much looser definition of “open” than the NGOs that are the authority in that field (Open Knowledge Foundation, Open Data Network, etc.). As it stands today, there [Update:
might be custom licensing formats, and a lot of data that will only be released with] seems to be an introduction of custom licenses, including the option of a “non-commercial” [Update:] Creative Commons license attribute, which makes it semi-open in the eyes of the pundits, [Update] and is the likely reason for striking of the word “open” from the portal. Other critics have lamented the closed nature of those workshops, from which participants weren’t allowed to tweet or blog. An open web consultation on the government’s Open Government white-paper was similarly disappointing. The consultation immensely improved the quality of the paper, however much-demanded provisions were watered down: there is no mention of the OGP in the white-paper, even though it was one of the most-requested alterations to the draft.
Following an introduction of the beta version on Twitter the other day, it sounded like the critics were finally right – and to cross the i’s and dot the t’s, the Government decided to altogether scrap the word “open” from the platform’s title. It will be called “GovData“. Following the development the last few weeks it seemed clear that the conservative elements in the higher echelons either just did not get what it means to finally go “open government” in the data dimension, or they were just too scared to follow through. Government gerontocracy is like a little child, it will do all sorts of things on the way to the bedroom to prolong the eventual fate: the kid will go to sleep, no matter how many stops on the way. So it is with government, the path is towards more open, collaborative and efficient government, but all this loss of control is making people there so anxious that on the way to openness they will cling to whatever remnants of control they think they can still cling to. Experts can but shake their heads, and sigh at the squandered opportunities of this government, which would love to be very innovative in economic dimensions, but is actually a very backwards cabinet with lots of conservatives in key positions and a liberal coalition partner that is mostly occupied with its own ultra-low poll numbers.
All this adds to a series of disasters in open government in Germany. One is the stubborn denial to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP), along with the partners in crime Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. As an act of spite, they formed the “DACHLi” (the acronym for the countries’ licence plate IDs) initiative, a series of workshops and cooperation agreements to mostly push information exchange and open data cooperation in a way that they have nothing to fear from it, and provide ample platforms for lobbyists to talk CIOs into purchasing proprietary IT solutions for “open” government. All the while, you can count the actual attempts for more cultural and managerial change towards openness with one hand. Another of those disasters is the government’s battle against a community-built Freedom of Information platform (fragdenstaat.de) and its failure to make publicly accessible studies produced as part of the parliamentary research service (after all, paid by the taxpayer). A third thing comes to mind: the failure to ratify the UN Convention against Corruption, along with a handful of other rogue states, because it would require reform of the federal criminal code that would tighten rules for politicians’ leeway to accept campaign donations and stricter transparency on their side-jobs. Look it up, Germany is in good company there, even Myanmar is ratifying the convention.
Let me make this clear. Most of the people I know who are working on this, both in the BMI and at Fraunhofer or other forums where dialogue is happening, even within the companies I don’t trust with the word “open”, really mean well. They are all knowledgeable, smart and innovative people who want open government – real open government. However, there is a glass ceiling in this government, above which decision-makers are scared and confused about all this openness and the internet, and have zero interest in more transparency. Change-agents and innovators in government and elsewhere, suffer and get disillusioned from this reluctance. With fatal consequences and lasting mistrust.
Unless something changes and openness becomes a top-down priority, we are not going to make much progress here. There is some hope with the upcoming federal elections this fall, but with the current political climate in Germany, it is very likely that not all that much will change. There is little hope for innovation and reform even after the election. I sound bitter, but I have to say despite all the factual debates and constructive work, I am also sick of pretending everything is fine and progressive, when it is clearly not. As Tim Berners Lee was recently quoted saying, it’s no longer okay to be in government and not understand the internet. I would add, it is not okay at all to be in government and not embrace progress.
Article by: Sebastian Haselbeck