Technology has helped us transform our world for the better and has also allowed us to connect effortlessly over distances.
The unprecedented opportunities it provides to connect with each other and with information easily and instantly is changing the way we communicate, how we do business and how we live our lives. By putting power in the hands of billions of consumers, prices have fallen and the choice and quality of goods and services have improved dramatically. Businesses, too, are gaining through the chance to know their customers better, strengthening relationships, building trust and increasing sales.
But although individuals as consumers are already reaping these benefits, as citizens they have yet to see the same improvements. Governments have often been slow to see the advantages that openness and dialogue bring for their countries. Some, to be frank, remain suspicious of the power it might hand to individuals and communities.
Slowly but surely we are seeing this change. Last year, we saw a small number of governments, including the United States and South Africa, join with citizens’ groups and businesses to promote openness and improved engagement with their citizens. The efforts of the Open Government Partnership will be stepped up and 42 new countries will join at a conference this week, attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and hosted by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff.
The initiative is still in its early days. But by improving accountability and transparency, it has rich potential to improve public services, ensure money is spent wisely and break down the barriers between the government and the governed. At a time when this divide has never seemed bigger in many countries and when public finances are tight, these are goals of crucial importance.
Countries that sign up to the partnership have to demonstrate their commitment to open government. Each will set out this week their plans on how more information will be made available to citizens, how genuine engagement will be encouraged and how this dialogue will help to drive social change.
Having seen first-hand what can be achieved if we can better connect people, I am excited by its potential to deliver positive change. The global success of eBay—the world’s online marketplace, which now has more than 220-million customers—was based on confidence in people and creating a network to enable them to come together. Consumers have gained from sharing their passions and interests. Many thousands of new businesses have been able to compete on a level playing field, challenging the dominance of established players.
Technology gives us, on a scale and speed never possible before, the opportunity to magnify the power of every individual. There will always be a tiny minority who might abuse this opportunity. But our experience at eBay is that the overwhelming majority use this power responsibly. We must have the confidence to harness this ability to give people a voice. If we do, the rewards will be enormous.
Governments that tap into the collective expertise and experience of their citizens will make better decisions. Increased transparency, participation and accountability will increase protection against corruption.
By using technology to empower individuals, we enable them to influence policies and priorities at a national and community level. It raises ambitions and increases interest and participation in public life.
But using the opportunities that technology brings to share information is only one half of the equation. We will only reap fully all these rewards if citizens, civil society and businesses use this information to monitor progress, hold those making decisions to account, and encourage change. Transparency is vital, but so is the active engagement and participation of citizens.
It is vitally important, too, that we work at both a national and local level to help provide the skills and tools to use this data and the opportunities it brings. This means developing the tools and partnerships that make this new era of active citizen engagement a reality. It is something Omidyar Network, which encourages the use of technology and markets to foster social change, is already supporting in many countries.
We are already seeing examples of what can be achieved and the difference it can make. In South Africa, Omidyar Network is supporting the Praekelt Foundation, founded by Gustav Praekelt, the mobile-marketing entrepreneur who has his own successful business using mobile platforms to reach millions across Africa. His innovations are now being used for social good through major campaigns educating people on HIV/Aids and South Africa’s largest mobile-based youth platform, Young Africa Live.
But this is only the beginning. The ability to encourage honest and responsive governments and allow citizens and communities to shape rather than just accept the services they receive holds great potential. We have seen a revolution in the way businesses and consumers interact. If we can harness the same power to improve standards of governance, we can help to create jobs, strengthen societies and transform the quality of life of millions of people.
Stephen King is a partner at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar