What Cost Citizen Engagement?

by Richard Fahey on 19/03/2010

Tomorrow marks the end of Sunshine week, highlighting the importance of transparency, open government and freedom of information. The week has seen the launch of a wide range of initiatives focused on the themes of transparency and accountability.

Broadly speaking, the open government movement in Ireland has not penetrated government, or the political agenda, in any similar way as countries such as the United States or United Kingdom. There is a lack of political leadership around this issue both at a central and local government level.

In addition, the resources for advocacy in Ireland are more limited than in the U.S. or the U.K. Organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation or OMB Watch, which use technology to show how the government can be more transparent, and take non-machine-readable data and make it more accessible do not exist in Ireland. There is fewer foundations and donors who can sponsor such projects.

Nevertheless, sites such as KildareStreet and theStory do exist to make government data more transparent and accessible. Needless to say these sites have faced various issues with the quality of government data, the fact that data requests need to go through the Freedom of Information process rather than datasets being released.

The government itself, however, has not engaged in any widespread transparency or citizen engagement strategies in a similar manner to the US Open Government initiative. Tim Berners-Lee suggested this week that countries should be judged on their willingness to open up public data to their citizens. He went on to say Open data could now be considered a basic right of citizens:

I think obviously there are more fundamental ones, but within a democratic society if the democracy is going to work you have to have an informed electorate.

In this area, the Irish government falls short.

Citizen Engagement

As a means of ‘engaging with the public’ the Houses of the Oireachtas (the legislative branch of Government) recently created a number of short films to provide an insight into our national parliament. Some of the films are a serious attempt to educate the public on the operations of the government, while others are intended as a light-hearted perspective on legislative decision making.

The seven short films include:

  • A Welcome to the Houses of the Oireachtas from the speaker of the Dail (the Ceann Comhairle) -  In this film, he introduces Leinster House (home to the Houses of the Parliament), and highlights the need to make its activities more open and transparent:

  • The Tree – A selection of voices from the people of Ireland on their view of the country and its future.
    • Parliament – An explanation of the structure of the national parliament and the election process.

    We need to get more people engaged in the democratic process and make it more relevant to today’s Ireland, or we face the prospect of a long term decline in the authority of our systems and ultimately of our democracy. The time has arrived where we need to become more outward looking and open.

    Ireland is government by what is know by a Parliamentary democracy. Our national Parliament – the Oireachtas – consists of the office of the President and two houses: Dail Eireann (the House of Representatives) and Seanad Eireann (the Senate).

    Anyone who cho0ses the political pathway needs to have a support network in place as they face the variety of challenges in their job. Friends and family are paramount to this.

    • At Home – An introduction to some of the country’s politicians in their home environments.
    • Budget – An enlightened debate over the compromises involved in passing a budget.
    • Bill – A light-hearted look into the process through which a bill becomes law.
    • Members – A reflection on political life from members of the Oireachtas.
    Cost of engagement

    The production of the short films above has not been without controversy. The Houses of the Oireachtas spent close to €100,000 on the films above and other promotional brochures.


    The short films have been uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, but so far have only achieved just over 1,100 views. At a cost of €87,000, this currently works out at a significant cost per view. The films are, however, due to be distributed by DVD to each primary school in the country, so web viewers cannot be counted as the only audience.


    Crowdsourced visualisations

    The Sunlight Foundation announced a new competition this week in which it is offering prizes of up to $5,000 for visualisations of government data, processes and websites. As part of this they’re looking for members of the public to create a visualisation of How a Bill Becomes a Law.


    The Bill film above is the Irish government’s attempt to outline this process in an easily accessible fashion. It does not, however, tell the whole story i.e. who writes the bills, what happens after they get passed etc.


    The question arises as to whether the Irish government could have solicited such a production from the general public by way of a competition, rather than creating this themselves. Would it have been cheaper and more inclusive to crowdsource such a visualisation? Would it have been better to explain more of the nuances of policy making, rather than simply outlining the process?



    Government films

    The Obama administration has been prolific in it’s use of video to outline the activities of the executive branch. Their YouTube channel contains hundreds of videos narrating Presidential events, press conferences, policy announcements and townhalls.


    One of the most interesting aspects of their video presence relates to the behind the scenes footage they’ve uploaded. Through these the administration provides a fascinating insight into the operations of the White House. Such films exemplify the transparency tenet of the Memorandum on Open Government:


    Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.
    These films are professionally produced and not the kind of thing which could be reasonably be crowdsourced or produced by members of the general public – not least because this kind of access would not be available.


    The US government has, however, experimented with the crowdsourcing of videos. HHS ran a competition last year for a Public Service Announcement (PSA) film to inform and motivate people to take steps that would help prevent the spread of the flu. They received over 200 entries with over 50,000 votes cast on the entries. The EPA and other agencies are currently running similar competitions.


    Crowdsourcing Irish gov films


    Due to the lack of any substantial Open Government movement in operation within Ireland – or the existence of high profile organisations advocating greater transparency – it’s difficult to know whether competitions such as those organised by Sunlight Labs would be successful here. While the films above are an attempt to make the operations of the Houses of the Oireachtas more transparent, the initiative cannot be thought of as a significant engagement exercise.


    Last week’s Irish Innovation taskforce report made no mention of the release of government data or information in order to stimulate innovation. Sunshine week has highlighted the importance of transparency and the innovations that can be achieved through developing an active and engaged public.


    Ireland can learn much from this week’s activities particularly the Public Online Information Act. Rather than spend time creating films, government should be releasing data and information to enable the public create their own visualisations. In the long run, this is a much more sustainable platform upon which government can engage with the public.

    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Cian O'DonovanNo Gravatar March 21, 2010 at 6:34 am

    Richee, great overview on what’s going on in Ireland right now. First time I’ve seen all this stuff in the one place and heartening to know it’s going on. How do you think this compares to Labour’s promises re open info here in the UK this week?

    2 Richard FaheyNo Gravatar March 21, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Tomorrow’s announcement from Gordon Brown will be interesting. The UK has a lot going on though and particularly in relation to opening up data through data.gov.uk. It’s also opening up local spending data e.g. through http://data.london.gov.uk.

    I think what’s more interesting is that there is a greater transparency / open government movement in the UK e.g. with mysociety and other organisations. Also, the UK has different Government related barcamps going on e.g. central and local gov. It has hack days and other events, which are semi supported by the government.

    The Conservatives also promote concepts such as transparency and open data in their manifesto. I just don’t see this as a big talking point in Ireland (other than transparency in relation to TD expenses).

    I think Ireland is slowly learning from initiatives in the US, UK and even at an EU level. However, I don’t think the open government movement will come from Gov, but rather needs to originate at a citizen level.

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