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Open Government

Interview of Mellouki Cadat, first published in Dutch by the Netherlands Expertise Center Open Government .

The more Open Government the better

Mellouki Cadat is a senior advisor linked to the Social Care team of Movisie, The Netherlands Center for Social Development. Of French-Algerian descent, he has been living in the Netherlands since 1989. He is originally a jurist and political scientist. Mellouki has specialised in political and social participation in a multicultural local environment. As advisor and trainer he supports community members, socials professionals and civil servants working in communities and neighbourhoods. As a resident of the East Indies Quarter in East Amsterdam he is active in initiatives around budget monitoring and community rights. As world citizen he works in Oxfam Novib’s E-Motive programme, on the three tracks of the project Deepening Democracy: citizens’ influence on the political agenda, law and policies, and public finance. In the past he sat on Zeeburg’s borough council, which also covered the East Indies Quarter. We asked him about his experiences with transparency and his vision on Open Government.

Where does your work meet Open Government?

In many areas. One example of community rights is the right to Open Data, an aspect of Open Government. Budget monitoring is in part about Open Data, and in part about co-operation and dialogue, thus about an Open Approach. And the three tracks in E-Motive’s programme all have a strong link with Open Government. The track “citizens’ influence on the political agenda” even goes beyond, it is about Open Government at its best. You don’t just ask residents what they think of a law, but you given them influence so they can join government in co-creating law texts and components of law texts.

Guts and education are necessary to get civil servants to open up more.”

Can you give examples of what you would like to achieve with E-Motive’s programme?

We’d like to see a legal basis for community rights. And we’d like to see budget monitoring too to be entrenched in law. Besides we learn a lot from each other in such a programme. Kenya and Uganda taught us about Ushahidi, the software Barack Obama, among others, has praised for letting residents point on a map where something is happening, from forest fires to explosions of violence. In the words of one of its founders: “Ushahidi ensures that people are heard and information channels become more democratic: it encourages citizens’ participation.”

Provide ongoing support to the movement for Open Government.”

What is your vision on Open Government?

I’m a fan of sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for instance of his hypothesis that democracy relies on well informed and very well motivated citizens. A government’s transparency starts with data and information, which continues into interaction, co-operation and participation. A requirement of Open Government is to let citizens have their democratic say, to make space for that, by providing the information and tools, thereby covering all steps in the participation ladder, from information to co-decision and co-creation. In this way we achieve more than a rigid meritocratic democracy. So Open Government for all means Democracy for all. Habermas puts it nicely: the core of a democracy is that it is open to everybody, so everybody can play a role in co-decision. An Open Government is crucial to be able to achieve that!

Earlier on you wrote an article about co-decision, co-action and co-thinking. How does that fit in with the four flight paths for Open Government: Open Contact, Open Approach, Open Data and Open Accountability.

In my opinion that depends on your destination. Flight paths have a destination, and when I think about it, I see a square in front of me where government and residents have unhindered contact: Open Contact. Open Data, in my view, is more about co-thinking. Open Approach is about participation. And co-decision could be Open Accountability. So Open Data, Open Accountability and Open Approach lead to a better contact, to Open Contact within a community or society, government included.

How open were you as a local politician?

I was the most open councillor in the Netherlands, so concluded in 2003 a commission chaired by Groningen’s mayor Jacques Wallage. I had a weblog, joined Hyves, et cetera. As a result I still have a good contact with residents like florist Patrick. He once had a big problem, because he had to up stick due to a new development plan. He knew nothing about politics. He didn’t know about the many ways of approaching politics. For him one of the lowest threshold appears to have been to seek contact through internet. He discovered me, because I was active in local forums. I gave him a voice via my blog, and I later polled people’s opinions about the development plan.

Open Government starts with data and information, and continues into interaction, co-operation and participation.”

It’s been my experience that local politics is focussed inward. Information and data are kept behind closed doors, and only when it’s strategic or tactical is it made public. And that means that when you are very open and, for instance, loudly voice a florist’s opinion, you put pressure on public opinion making, and will thus get a response in public. The careful politician – and there are many of them – keeps much of his assessing indoors. Despite headwinds I had a different experience. Transparency gave a huge boost to my role as antenna, to my role as people’s representative.

What have you as people’s representative achieved for Open Government?

I’ve moved the debate to a wider forum: council-wide we wanted more exchange with citizens. We decided to start supporting citizens’ initiatives. In 2010 national politics came here en masse to take a look in the East Indies Quarter. We used the idea of one day of nagging, followed by a day of action: what are we going to do about it. I then also met many motivated residents. Very much focussed on the neighbourhood. Even then I thought: the more Open Government the better! And I wasn’t the only one. The thinking gave rise to initiatives like budget monitoring. That wasn’t just about Open Data, but also about an Open Mind for citizens’ ideas and initiatives, thus an Open Approach. I like the word Open Approach. It is the opposite of Closed Approach: the government acts alone or citizens act alone and there is no contact. To me Open Approach means that a bridge exists, co-operation. Budget monitoring is a combination of Open Data and Open Approach.

What has budget monitoring delivered?

From my own experience I’d say that it has delivered knowledge for government and citizens. For residents it means that they know what monies are tied in with which issues; sometimes by street. And above all they understand why certain choices were made for the area of neighbourhood. It delivers financial knowledge, but also knowledge of policies and politics. In short: understanding of the other, of the government. Recognition of the other’s validity. The same is true for civil servants: appreciation of the wisdom of residents, and above all, knowing what’s happening in the area! It’s advantageous to both sides: active and interested citizens emerged who began leading communities and (recently) organized the citizens’ summit of Amsterdam. And around them other people become active. This opens doors and windows, metaphorically speaking. New perspectives, people and ideas make their entry. The system-world and people-world meet, when they are open to that.

Open Government is crucial to achieving an improved form of democracy.”

What do you think is needed to get civil servants to open up more?

Guts and education. You need guts to cross the threshold as a civil servant. For instance, the Nieuwe Wibaut in Amsterdam is a training centre where civil servants can spend six weeks with a group of residents to tackle an issue that is part of your brief as civil servant. And yes, I’m a fan of good courses and training processes. Plenty to do for staff, managers and HR staff. And make sure there is ongoing support of the movement for Open Government.

What was your key moment toward more transparency?

I was a lad of eight and looked another boy into the eyes. I wanted to play with him, but there was a fence between us. I felt a distance that I wanted to overcome, but failed to do so. It frustrated me. As a boy I lived in El-Golea, an oasis in Algeria’s desert. Life was good in our oasis. We, for instance, grew strawberries. The other boy, I just mentioned, stood at the fence of our farm in the Sahara, begging. We looked so much alike! I could’ve been him. I had so much I wanted to ask him. But my parents didn’t let me play outside the oasis. It didn’t feel right; that feeling of living inside a castle. Later the image of the castle where I lived has been on my mind many limes. This key moment caused me to have a big need for contact with people who are different from me. And alongside contact: I always want to do things together. And you are above all successful in that when you are open. That’s the force that drives me: connection through co-operation.

What is your appeal to everyone working on Open Government?

Open up yourself! Grab society’s hand. Get working together. Link up through pleasant contact and pleasant co-operation.