On Open Government: “Everything good proceeds from enthusiasm…”

Brian Eno in interview.

However cynical views of the increasingly visible shortcomings of our democratic systems, people remain passionate as ever about the ‘wetware’ of politics itself, even if the democratic institutions struggle to retain a respectful place in their public affections.

And we are not just talking about Stormont.

Steven McCaffrey’s profile of the launch of the Open Government Network takes a realistic view of prospective of Stormont opening up to its citizens in a meaningful way. He cites their own Detail Data project as one way of making data more available to the public.

But the key to the broader success of an open government network lies in Ann Allan’s near throw away line at the end of her Vixens blog

…we all headed off, fired with enthusiasm, many signing up to the network before they left.

Enthusiasm is the key to any future success of free, autonomous and voluntary networking around the theme/possibility of open government. Aging Indy star Iggy Pop in his recent John Peel lecture noted a certain kind of freedom

…when you feel or sense that someone that someone is giving you something not out of profit, but out of self-respect, that has a very powerful energy: it gives them the latitude to try to be interesting, thoughtful, helpful.

To take part there has to be a reasonable reward. There should also be sufficient complexity in the problem to engage wider enthusiasm, and networks must also be afforded sufficient autonomy to searching out potential solutions for themselves.

On government’s side, they might begin by stop doing bad things, in particular ending the dumbing down of public expectations over what they might achieve. Perhaps also to start listening to what people want or need and look to create a new and more naive conviviality with electors between elections.

The problem, loosely defined, is that the technocratic solutions on which governments have become so reliant are good at offering a concrete beginning and a solid end. What’s missing is the very human and meandering middle bit of the story, so to speak.

What’s the manifesto? Well it’s still pretty open and it’s for you and others to help write it. Where’s the gathering point? As noted by David on Monday, that’s just the start. Briefing here, and more here.

If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution

Emma Goldman

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  • SeaanUiNeill

    Interesting to see you use an Emma Goldman quote (an aprocypal quote at that), Mick, to recommend an enthusiastic engagement with the completely dysfunctional representative system in order to revitalise it on a wave of popular engagement. While Emma may have wanted a dance (after Nietzsche!) she would probably have elected to stay a wallflower if asked by that particular partner in any of its contemporary guises. A couple of genuine quotes perhaps to give her a voice in this discussion! She said in 1911:

    “The average mind is slow in grasping a truth, but when the most thoroughly organized, centralized institution, maintained at an excessive national expense, has proven a complete social failure, the dullest must begin to question its right to exist. The time is past when we can be content with our social fabric merely because it is ‘ordained by divine right,’ or by the majesty of the law.”


    “Our institutions and conditions rest upon deep-seated ideas. To change those conditions and at the same time leave the underlying ideas and values intact means only a superficial transformation, one that cannot be permanent or bring real betterment.” in 1923.

    She’d probably have questioned that any government representative or otherwise, can ever be more than superficially open in its dealings, no matter what we try to demand from them. But hey, people have to start somewhere, and the open government demand for some information from our masters is a move in the right direction.

  • mickfealty

    I thought it came off as a little too modern for the time, apparently it’s a contracted paraphrase from her biography, ‘Living My Life’ (http://goo.gl/KjevKE)…

    I agree with that last quote of yours, but the truth is that the environment in which these institutions operate is changing rapidly. Personally, I think it’s a question of changing through enthusiastic engagement, or by other means.

    The volatility of electorates is a key signal of that rapid environmental change, and the clamour is for new forms of institutions which can build in the middle ‘wetware’ part of the story mentioned above.

    For now the capture of institutions by technocrats is in part what has mobilised the hoards of populism, who eschew the search for new solutions in favour of rage against the machine.

    In summary, closed feedback loops (where all matters inevitably return to the same single point of departure) will simply not suffice. It has to be open.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hey Mick, I actually agree with you on “Personally, I think it’s a question of changing through enthusiastic engagement, or by other means.” The more real engagement, the better, although I’m all too aware that most people still won’t give a toss and so such engagement must always be a wee bit elitist. I’ve recently become interested in Beppe in Italy, but disagree with him on about 50% of his points, although his efforts to try and loosen up the ubiquitous elitism of the representation system is rather fun!

    About the dancing quote, thanks for putting up the link to the “original”. I’ve been checking those little green paperbacks from Freedom Press that have been on my shelves since about 1964, and was just about to post it myself. Thanks for saving my typing fingers the work!

    And I entirely agree that the technocracy is something that can all too easily blind people to the very real human agency (as you say “rage against the machine”). So many people I talk to seem only too willing to blame the big obvious reifications such as technology and forget all that chaotic mess of human self interest that is actually operating these technologies and political systems. And thanks for the (part) agreement about my last Emma quote, (I can’t help thinking Richard Kearney and the GFA when I see it!) and I’d certainly take your point that the only way we’re going to effect change is by, as you say, “enthusiastic engagement” but I’m still very uncomfortable with becoming engaged with what is essentially a rather sclerotic nineteenth century representation system that is all too comfortably ensconced in peoples minds as the only way any sane person approaches governing themselves. For me, the “enthusiastic engagement” should not stop at simply engaging with the system but with the actual “meat” of government itself. I’d like a way of challenging acts of parliament, for a start, such as can occur within the Swiss system. Now that’s what I’d call “engagement”! And I would hardly not concur with your final summary “It has to be open.”

  • Nevin

    Meanwhile, away from the coffee rooms and the consumption of waffles, things are stirring in the Causeway Coast and Glens. An arm’s length body is struggling to keep an irate public at arm’s length; standing orders have been altered and a Board meeting has been postponed until after some nasty medicine has been administered. This isn’t the only highly camouflaged decision that is being ram-rodded through in the absence of a publicly visible implementation plan. Ministers are under pressure but, as they still fail to chair their Departmental Board meetings in line with recommended Treasury best practice, they could end up copping the blame for the failures of other public servants and quangos.

  • Nevin