17 Nov 2011

Consulting on open government - time to send your ideas

Submit your ideas on open government at wananchi.go.tz
As those of you who follow Daraja closely will know, I spent Tuesday this week at a meeting convened by the Tanzania Open Government Partnership (OGP) Task Force - see here and here for some background on the OGP from this blog, or here (pdf) for a presentation to the Cabinet on the subject. The meeting was to consult civil society and other stakeholders on the Action Plan that Tanzania will take next month to the OGP secretariat at a meeting in Brazil.

The political leadership behind this initiative is impressive, both within and beyond Tanzania. Presidents Obama and Roussef (of Brazil) are driving things internationally, with support from Tanzania's own Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza, representing civil society, and several countries are really pushing ambitious plans - the UK government, for example, says it wants to be "the most open and transparent government in the world".

Here in Tanzania, President Kikwete has given the OGP his full support. He attended the launch in New York, has tasked the Minister for Good Governance to take the lead with the support of senior civil servants from State House, and discussed it personally in his monthly address in September. And Ikulu's leadership is having an effect - I asked one civil servant how his ministry colleagues would feel about opening up key data for public access and got the answer that it wouldn't matter how they felt, this was coming from the President so they had no choice.

The guidance from Cabinet was to focus on three key public service sectors - health, education and water - plus cross-cutting issues. This makes some sense, though it does mean some things get left out, such as cementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which the US government (for example) has made part of its Open Government Plan.

Rakesh presented some ideas (pdf) - the same presentation that was made previously to cabinet - and encouraged us to match the President's ambition by developing an action plan that sets the standard for other countries to follow. And then the cross-ministry task force presented their suggestions for what should go into the action plan, to help get the discussions started.

On the positive side, the task force's ideas included making waterpoint mapping data and maps public. But frankly, taken as a whole, the proposed plan was uninspiring. It consisted mainly of a series of statements to "improve", "implement", "speed up" or "strengthen" existing policies or processes.

The very first proposed action was pretty typical of the rest, notable mainly for its lack of ambition:
"Kuweka utaratibu wa kufanya madawati ya malalamiko yaliyoanzishwa ktk Wizara na Mamlaka za Serikali za Mitaa yafanye kazi" (To put in place measures to ensure the complaints desks that have been started in Ministries and local government work.)
Can we not have something more substantial? Perhaps we could follow the lead of Kenya, where 160 datasets have been put online at OpenData.go.ke. Or India when a powerful Freedom of Information law has been enacted. Or Brazil where all central government expenditure is published online the day after it has been spent.

I tried to persuade the meeting that we should aim a little higher, on the basis that when you aim for the stars even if you miss you might reach the moon. As I see it, the following three things would be particularly useful and would match the President's ambition:

1. The proposal to put waterpoint mapping data online is excellent, but this could be extended to include data on school capitation grant transfers, distribution of medical supplies, water extraction permits, basic education statistics, and more, collected together as an Open Data Portal for Tanzania.

2. Better budget transparency. More specifically, a good start would be to have clear guidelines from State House / the Ministry of Finance on what budget information should be made public and in what format, covering everything from ensuring budget data on council, village and school noticeboards is published in Swahili rather than English right up to ensuring that national budget data is available in machine-readable formats. 

3. And most important of all, why not include a Freedom of Information law in the action plan? We were told this was left out of the proposed plan because the process to prepare such a law has already been started and the task force were not sure whether it could be completed within 12 months, as per the OGP guidelines. But if a FoI law is being prepared, including it in the OGP action plan would only help speed up the process, so surely better to have it in than to leave it out. I made this point at the meeting, and it seemed to get support, including from the task force.

I reckon that would make a pretty good action plan. It would provide the OGP with evidence of Tanzania's commitment to open government, and more important, it would make a real difference to accountable governance in Tanzania.

Those are just one person's views. But among the many things to be applauded in the government's approach to the OGP is their willingness to embrace new ways of collecting people's ideas. A website has been set up (wananchi.go.tz), an SMS number (0658 999222) and a post box (9120 DSM), all of which can be used to send your ideas.

This will only work if we support it. So please, think about what aspect of open government would make a difference to you, or to Tanzania as a whole, and send your ideas. If you like the ideas I've posted here, then say so. If you think something else is more important, then say so too. And best of all would be if you persuade other people to send their ideas as well. Tell them at home and at work, tell them on facebook. The government is doing a good thing here and giving you a chance to have your say. Let's support them by making as much use of the opportunity as we can.

You can send ideas in three ways:
 - By post, to PO Box 9120, Dar es Salaam
 - By SMS, to 0658 999222
 - Online, at wananchi.go.tz - click on "Tuma" or "Wasilisha Hoja"

There's not much time - ideas sent by the end of November are much more likely to be considered. And as part of encouraging others, why not add a comment below to say that you've sent an idea.

UPDATE, 22/11/2011
There is now another way you can send ideas for inclusion in Tanzania's Open Government Action Plan - via facebook. Daraja and others have set up a facebook page - Naunga mkono uwazi serikalini (I support open government) - where you can show your support and/or post your ideas. Any ideas posted there will be forwarded to the Tanzanian OGP Task Force. For more details on this, see this blogpost introducing the page.