The Wikileaks ModelWe Open Governments, said the banner.
Such a simple statement, transferring agency and intent from the government to the individual. We open governments… sounded almost corporate, almost like a service agency, apart from that edge of… agency… of intent.
Wikileaks. We all know the story now - Julian Assange, raised in a cult (maybe), cipherpunk programmer (likely), started wikileaks (probably), kicked out by his own team (depends who you ask), cut off from donated aid by VISA etc (perhaps illegally), then long house-arrest for allegations of sexual assault (no charges yet filed.) The fact that it’s necessary to attach a “credibility level” to nearly any statement about Assange highlights one thing: he’s succeeded in becoming almost as opaque as his enemies, hiding in plain sight, spinning a defensive cocoon of narratives, all mostly alike, slightly interlocking, a mosaic of partial truths and outright lies, dazzle camouflage of the destructive inventor of open source espionage, or one of our leading civil libertarians, depending on who you ask.
Such is the rabbit hole.
Let’s have a think about the Wikileaks original business model.
- Governments are basically conspiracies, at least the bad parts of them.
- Leaks do far more damage to conspiracies than they do to open organizations.
- Making leaking things easier, safer and more reliable therefore punishes conspiracies more than good people.
- Wikileaks provides infrastructure for better leaking, resulting in a more open, better world.
The harder question is to say why not. It’s very hard to make an argument for most of government secrecy. All kinds of dodgy dealings in procurement, in service contracts, in suppression of stories which make the government look bad, in spying and dirty tricks against domestic dissidents, in supporting troublemakers in our allies’ countries - all of this is routine, never mind the perhaps-more-defensible actual military/intelligence work which seems to be at the heart of the modern State in many cases. Why is the Assange Model, the Wikileaks Model, bad?
The answer is that the Assange Model is bad because it’s anti-democratic. The leak cycle requires collusion between a handful of actors - a leaker (who has their own reasons), a leak-handler (the editors of Wikileaks, say), and then some number of publishers who’re willing to handle the leaked material before it’s made fully public. All of these people have their own motivations, their own agendas, and while “the truth will set you free” actually what we have is a technical elite with their own filter bubbles acting to “correct” democracy. It’s not actually that different to Big Media picking-and-choosing which stories to run: the Wikileaks model is, at best, Aggressive Investigative Journalism. It might have a role to play in a more general ecology of news and the formation of public opinion, although I certainly wonder about the sustainability, risks and long-term effects, but it’s no substitute for democratic participation. Counter-conspiracy is not the answer.
This is a very, very sharp and slippery line: to say that openness of information is necessary for informed voting is one thing. To say that leaking what is true is therefore a support of democracy is another. Without a clear understanding - a transparent one - of how leaks are prioritized and spun before release, Wikileaks remains just another media channel. And it’s this line - an “open source espionage / press agency” which the political groundwork was clearly not done on. The deep questions about power and transparency (or, at least, accountability) within Wikileaks were not raised, and so it has fallen.
The Aid Transparency ModelSo let's look at another model of Open Government: the Open Data movement. I can't speak for the whole of this, I only have experience in one area: Opening Data on foreign aid, often just called Aid Transparency. I've worked for one charity doing work in this area, and I've had substantial contact with a few others. There's a problem, it's big, it's hairy, and I think there's a lot to learn from it.
Here’s the unpopular truth: most aid is wasted. There are horror stories, well-told by people like Kevin Starr and David Damburger who describe, in these videos, the fullness of the Aid Problem. The stories are horrific: products hailed as breakthroughs which are simply unused 90% because they don’t work very well in the real world, or wells dug and dug again by different international agencies who never talk to each-other, and never come back to check their work later. This situation is costing a lot of lives, and, worse, calling into question the existence of international aid.
If we stand up and speak the truth about what is broken, so the argument goes, we’ll lose our funding and more people will die. And this kind of thinking has gone on for generations of aid workers, become a sort of amoral corporate philosophy, taught to and then bred into each new round of do-gooders by their organizational forebears, making sure that the party line will never change: Aid is Perfect, give us More Money, and let us Get On With Saving the World.
But, in truth, the aid game is being challenged on all sides. Cell phones mean locals can call up when their well fails. SMS messages from refugee camps arrive on the phones of high officials. Donors demand greater transparency because they know damn well the data can be collected at marginal costs now. The Big Lie of the aid world - keep silent about our mistakes, because we’re saving lives by keeping our mouth shut when we screw up - is coming apart at the seams under the weight of more transparency. The parallels to Wikileaks successes and failures are informative and ironic.
Here we see the same kind of mission-critical, life-or-death systems being disrupted by transparency, by the same forces which Julian Assange sought to point at government. It’s all about the power of information to move money, the power of secrecy to hide bad practice. In the aid world, however, rather than a semi-secret cabal making the publishing decisions, the pressure for transparency comes over an extremely broad front, from individual donors who are slowly asking to know more about where the money goes, through to groups beginning to campaign for more honesty about failures in the field, through to improved communications facilitating full communications from remote areas, helping to keep everyone on the same team.
The broad, even nature of the pressure in aid is a critical difference to the Wikileaks model. A central “aid goof clearing house” structured like Wikileaks would clearly be pernicious - more secrecy, tighter control of information about errors, harsher political climate etc. would all be the costs for such an agency’s existence, even if it did occasionally reveal truly hideous wrong-doing in the course of business. The structure itself, of centralizing the point of openness in hidden hands, clearly negates its own best objectives.
This is an old lesson which every generation of political campaigners must learn: you must unify the ends and the means. If the goal is peace, the method must be peace. If the goal is openness, the method must be openness. My own work is flawed in many areas, but at least in a few key places, I’ve unified goal-and-method well enough to be going on with. It is hard, but is is possible.
The STAR-TIDES modelCivil cooperation with government is another model of openness. Again, I'll talk about this in an aid / disaster relief context, because that's what I know, and I'll try to draw out a couple of key points rather than getting into all the technical details of it.
My experience in this area is startling, not least to me: I helped to open up the Pentagon. Now, this is a very, very general statement, to the point of being wrong, so let’s try that again: I helped to demonstrate the power of Free/Open Source Appropriate Technology to network theorists inside of the US Military’s intellectual wing, who were persuaded by my work and the work of many others that being decisively more open and networked in dealing with humanitarian crisis would be a Good Thing, and over a few years, started a program called STAR-TIDES to implement that.
STAR-TIDES was always an unlikely beast - serious military talking to civilian volunteers and aid workers as peers, in a cooperative effort to figure out which technologies and best practices would be good to use and scale in disaster areas. But, and this is really critical, STAR-TIDES has generally been very successful by sticking to a few general principles.
- open what can be opened - know-how about tools and systems
- stay away from the messy operational end - share knowledge, but don't get involved in actual relief ops directly
- work with everybody who can use the same licenses and basic operating agreements
- be clear about what's non-negotiable - STAR-TIDES is, fundamentally, there to make the military better at disaster relief, not to fix the world.
The General Model: Open GovernmentFinally, let's discuss the most general case of open government: publish everything the government does and knows, in convenient machine-readable formats, on the basis that it is being done on behalf of the public, the same public who paid for it, the public that has a right to know. This public is poorly served by inefficient, opaque government. A government which pays for buses, but doesn't publish the GPS data on where each bus is. A government which commissions school meals, but won't say what's in them. A government which knows which hospitals are safer than others for a given operation, but won't tell you.
The simple truth here is that “couldn’t know” was the answer 50 years ago, because it was incredibly expensive to prepare and publish accurate data. It would have crippled the State. Today’s answer, of “shouldn’t know” is based on nothing more than the convenience of bureaucrats. And I say that with all due respect: some of my best friends are bureaucrats! But it is the simple, brutal, cold truth: every time the government says “you can’t know that” about something which you are paying for, outside of a narrow defense arena, what they really mean is “it’s inconvenient for us for you to know that.”
Government does not exist to serve its own interests, it exists to serve our interests. Open Data is without a doubt a simple and direct rendering of eternal democratic principles using the technologies of our age. There might be all kinds of implementation details and privacy issues which need to be addressed case-by-case, but there is absolutely no doubt that a conventional framing of the responsibilities of the individual and the State cannot escape the necessity of Open Government. We need to know in order to be able to cast our votes in an informed manner, and the State requires an informed and wise population to continue to be healthy.
Think about that.
We need to know so we can vote accurately.
The State needs us to know so that we can vote accurately.
That mutual obligation, around clear understanding of What Is Really Going On, between government and citizens is coming under serious and sustained pressure on all sides. Political radicals of all stripes - and I’ve made this mistake myself - want to give up on democracy and overhaul everything from the ground up without giving the system a chance to right itself.
The turning point for me, where I re-invested in the democratic process, was when the Pirate Party got 10% of the votes in the most recent German election. That’s the point where I knew that, at least in Germany, the system is still workable.
I will tell you my Pirate Party story in another post soon, but for now, here’s a parting thought:
It’s our responsibility to know so we can vote properly - how could any bureaucrat not want that?
Democracy requires Open Government.