“We all want our ideas to be heard”

How can citizens be involved in governing by contributing their wishes, ideas and expertise? And how can leaders use big data to make their work more transparent and prevent corruption? Beth Simone Noveck, law professor and director of the GovLab research center in New York, advises governments worldwide on open governance – for example Barack Obama during his time in office and, since 2018, the German government. In this interview, she talks about this democracy of small steps and the chances and challenges of Germany’s Digital Council.

published by deutschland.de on the occasion of the Internet Governance Forum >> (German version >>) in November 2019

Professor Noveck, at the turn of the century, you were at the forefront of the so-called open government revolution. How did you get interested in this topic in the first place?
Before becoming a jurist, I did my doctorate in political sciences and German literature in Innsbruck. I became interested in what made some political institutions in Germany and Austria bend and others break, what made them either withstand or succumb to national socialism. As a first generation digital native, I later applied this question to our century and asked: How can the internet and new technology help to strengthen democracy?

Should it not be self-evident for democratic governments to ask their own citizens for advice and input? Why were they for the longest time reluctant to do that, while allowing powerful industry lobbies to fill that role?
For a long time, we have been perfecting a notion of arm’s-length, independent, dispassionate bureaucracy, which relies on civil servants, who take decisions on behalf of society. This helped to get rid of the rampant corruption common in previous centuries. In the 21st century however, bureaucracy has become outdated – we live in a world in which everybody has equal access to information at their fingertips and in which expertise about problems and potential solutions is not limited to government employees but widely distributed in society. These radical changes also need to be reflected in the way we govern.

After all this time of being governed from afar, many citizens feel alienated, or even distrust their government as the rise of right-wing parties all over Europe shows. How can governments re-establish trust and convince citizens to engage?

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