The government of New Zealand recently announced victory against COVID-19 — a rare declaration when infections continue to rise globally. South Korea and Taiwan have also achieved notable successes.
Rare indeed — but revealing.
A lack of transparency and accountability around COVID-19 funding announcements means it is difficult to follow the funds. Devex convened an online event on how to increase transparency.
While this battle is far from over, these early successes largely stem from swift, decisive, and open government approaches that earned citizen trust and engagement. Efforts like social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and contact tracing are only as effective as the trust people place in their government. And that trust will be vital as governments unleash massive stimulus packages to reopen economies. In the critical weeks and months ahead, it is imperative that governments see citizens not as passive beneficiaries of governmental action, but rather as vital agents and partners.
Open government can serve as a bridge of mutual trust. Making government transparent, participatory, and responsive can empower citizens, businesses, and others through reliable information and engagement opportunities to shape and oversee an “open response, open recovery” approach that saves lives and livelihoods.
Ongoing coronavirus responses show two concrete ways in which open government saves lives.
First, it is key to curbing contagion. In New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, proactive and reliable disclosure and directives from the government built trust and empowered citizens to take mitigating actions, saving lives. In contrast, in China, Iran, and the U.S., initial political denial delayed disclosure of threats to citizens — costing lives. Across countries, the core imperative remains for governments to be trustworthy and honest, so citizens can take measured and responsible actions.
Second, open government is essential to effectively procuring lifesaving medical supplies with speed, while mitigating the risks of price gouging, corruption, and counterfeits. As New York desperately struggled to acquire ventilators, it paid — through an opaque contract — a whopping $69 million for nearly 1,500 ventilators, amounting to triple the retail price. Tragically, none were even delivered.
Open procedures can mitigate risks and build trust. For instance, in Paraguay and Colombia, the government publishes emergency contracts as open data that civil society monitors, including by tracking price differences for COVID-19 supplies.
As governments move to the recovery phase, four concrete open practices can continue to build trust and ensure that massive stimulus packages are used for their intended purposes.
As scientists scramble to find an antidote to COVID-19 to protect individuals, openness can be an antidote to bolster society in the wake of the pandemic.—
First, open budgets allow for independent and public oversight, ensuring citizens are able to follow the money. This approach was used in disclosing the budget in a searchable, open-source format for the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Second, open contracts save money, fight corruption, and spur economic activity. Ukraine discloses all contracts as open data on an online platform where citizens can report violations. In two years, citizens reported 14,000 violations, the government saved $1 billion, 82% of entrepreneurs reported reduced corruption, and there was a 50% increase in contract bids, including from small and medium-sized enterprises.
Third, transparency and public oversight in lobbying and company ownership can ensure that public funds and bailouts are not captured by the politically connected. Public registries of meetings and gifts between lobbyists and public officials, such as what Ireland instituted to curb influence peddling after its 2008 financial crisis, can empower citizens to thwart opaque backroom deals and democratize their access to policymakers.
Public registries can also be used to record the real owners of companies, including those registered in tax havens. This information can support the decisions of countries like Denmark and Canada to ensure COVID-19 bailout funds are not available to companies registered offshore.
Fourth, transparency in safety nets, as well as engagement and oversight by groups representing the least resilient, can ensure that these funds actually reach the intended beneficiaries. For instance, the Philippines government has released a $4 billion “social amelioration package” for COVID-19. But ensuring these precious resources are not siphoned by corruption and actually reach the targeted 18 million vulnerable — senior citizens, people with disabilities, pregnant women, indigent indigenous people, and the unemployed — will require transparency and oversight on who is eligible and a citizens’ grievance redressal mechanism, mediated by the vigilant Filipino civil society and overseen by formal accountability institutions.
Underpinning an open response and open recovery must be the protection of civil liberties and human rights. Where measures are taken to restrict freedoms to curb contagion, they must be proportionate, relevant, available for all to scrutinize, and time-bound. Citizens need civic space to freely shape and oversee the recovery as integral partners of government.
Lessons can be learned from South Korea, where — after candlelight protests by millions of citizens in Gwanghwamun Square brought down the corrupt administration — the new government invited them back to the square as partners to propose policies that respond to their needs. That spirit of proactively opening civic spaces — as well as protecting the whistleblowers, scientists, and independent media vital for speaking truth to power — is essential to coronavirus recovery.
As scientists scramble to find an antidote to COVID-19 to protect individuals, openness can be an antidote to bolster society in the wake of the pandemic. It can bind government and citizenry in a new social compact based on mutual trust that can drive effective and lasting change. “Open response, open recovery” will not only help tackle the current crisis, but it will also usher in a longer-term shift that puts citizens at the heart of governance in a post-pandemic era.