Jonathan Brun

The next quiet revolution – how Wikileaks, Open-Data and Citizen expectations will change the world

Things change quickly. Prior to the 1960s, Quebec was run by Maurice Duplessis and the Catholic Church. Upon his death in 1960, a radical change in government took place as power over health care, education, and much of Quebec society, perviously held by the Catholic Church, was ripped away and given to a democratically elected government. This non-violent revolution took place in the span of one decade and lay the foundation for today’s society. Just as that revolution saw the power move from one shadow government, the Catholic Church, to a more representative government, today’s shift transfers power from the hidden parts of our government back to the people.

Western governments are crippled with debt, which simply means they are trying to do too much with too little. You can argue their management is inefficient, the systems are too old or they are not competent – either way, the people are tired of it and are demanding change. Citizens live in a connected, digitized world with email, Facebook, and other amazing tools. When citizens, especially young ones, arrive at a government website, a hospital or a public school, they fail to understand how they are run so inefficiently. Of course, these institutions have inherited decades of legacy technology and practices, but that is still not a satisfactory answer. The people have expectations and governments are failing to live up to them.

Three major pressures are coming down on governments around the wold – Citizen expectations, Open-Data and Wikileaks.

Citizen expectations are born out of their daily lives. They communicate through email, Facebook and Twitter, see photos and have access to amazing tools. They consequently expect governments to rapidly embrace these same tools to improve the standard of living and better deliver existing services. However, governments are often burdened with so much responsibility they cannot easily pivot and change according to new technology. It is thus important for governments to begin offering the raw data so that third parties – citizen’s, non-profits and business can help deliver services to society. This raw data feed is a new trend that is rapidly growing into the global Open-Data movement.

The Open-Data movement, of which I am part, requests that governments offer their information in a format that can be reused and turned into practical tools. Advocates of open-data want governments to open up their databases of information so that citizens can peer inside, see problems and help fix them. Citizens want governments to embrace crowd-sourcing, leverage experts in their communities and be more efficient. While many governments resist, we should remember the cries of outrage when parliament was first required to publish the Hansard, it is now consider obvious that parliament would act in a transparent manner for all citizens to see.

The third force acting on governments today is fear, fear of Wikileaks. Wikileaks illegally takes information from governments (and corporations) and exposes it for all the world to see. Even in democratic countries, governments have little experience with full and complete transparency. In many ways, the elected government is a superficial level of a shadow government which runs continuously through election cycles and whose power is out of sight of most citizens. It manages the society through meetings, diplomacy, statistics and more. In fact, Assange and Wikileaks want to pull the structure of secrecy out from underneath government bureaucracies. By removing the secrecy of their communication, Wikileaks forces them to either revert to secrecy, which slows down their operations, or open-up, which forces them to act in a moral and appropriate way. The best summary of Wikileaks’ motivation can be found here.

The traditional, semi-closed, hierarchical bureaucratic government institution has served well for over 40 years, but it is time to change. Citizen expectations, Open-Data and Wikileaks will change it by increasing transparency, efficiency and fundamentally making it more representative of the citizenship. Make no qualms about it, society is undergoing a revolution, but a quiet one. The power structure we have now will radically change as citizens and organizations push for honesty through transparency.

Published on December 9, 2010