I have an article in the most recent version of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that makes an effort to connect the open development movement to some theories of political sociology without which I think transparency initiatives are likely to run into trouble, perhaps even leading to regressive outcomes.
Efforts like open mapping of low-income places or budget transparency websites are now quite trendy in development circles. One of the primary goals of these initiatives is to make “legible” what was previously inscrutable (e.g. the location of public health facilities or public spending on provincial education). To borrow from James Scott of Yale University, my worry is that “a thoroughly legible society eliminates local monopolies of information and creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations and measures. At the same time, it is likely to create new positional advantages for those at the apex who have the knowledge and access to easily decipher” the transparent environment (Scott 1998).
These questions of differential power dynamics – and the way openness will be harnessed by different entities to their own interests – are often absent from the technically-driven conversations about the value of transparency. Furthermore, not all transparency is created equally: openness in government processes versus community mapping are substantially different concerns, but often get lumped together in the new push for open development.
While the paper didn’t include time to substantively address solutions, I argue that theories such as Peter Evans’s concept of deliberative development should be a strong component of any development initiative working on transparency and openness.
Interested readers should also see the World Bank’s papers on the topic which also link technical and legal openness to political participation.
Update: The folks at Crooked Timber organized a seminar on open data, and Tom Slee’s excellent opening post built on some of the arguments in this paper, spurring quite a comment thread.