Two years ago as a first year PhD student at the National School for Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest, I was browsing the internet for Romanian e-government tools to use as examples for my thesis on bringing about transparency via digital tools.
Something you ought to know to better understand this story is that transparency was and unfortunately still is a rather ambiguous term for your average Romanian citizen, inside and outside the government. That’s mostly because there’s a general perception that there’s no difference between politicians and civil servants as they’re all somehow politically affiliated, and also that all politicians are corrupt.
Supposing the entire system was corrupt, I began to look at the recruitment procedure for civil servants. It turned out that few people actually applied for a job in a public institution because they didn’t realise jobs were available. Public bodies abided by all legal provisions regarding the advertising of jobs, yet at the end of the 20-day registration period only two or three candidates turned up. Why? Well, because most of the jobs were already informally awarded to someone regardless of competency or ability. This is a practice that literature calls favouritism or nepotism, closely associated with corruption.
So what can be done to encourage people to fight the system from within? Well, I took advantage of a breach in the legislation and developed a simple and friendly website that gathered all data on civil service jobs in one place. Subscribers would get a weekly email listing all the vacancies posted. The project skyrocketed. People not only started applying for jobs and thus creating real competition, but they also began to send me their stories about recruitment processes which were arranged to favour a particular candidate.
That’s when I decided to take things forward. In October 2012 I sent an open letter to the prime minister, asking for his support in delivering the “transparency” he mentioned 23 times in the government programme. The media supported the cause and later that month, I met with a high-ranking official from the prime minister’s office.
We teamed up and created jobs.gov.ro, an official government initiative. We then established an internal body called the Department for Online Services and Design, mainly by following the example set by the UK’s Government Digital Service. Then, we unblocked the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which was at that time a dead subject shared somewhere in between the General Secretariat of the Government, the Ministry for Justice and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
This helped us to gain support for the projects that followed: the first ever government-organised hackathon; the launch of buget.gov.ro, providing data on the national budget; consultations with civil society and the private sector within the OGP mechanism; the launch of data.gov.ro (the national portal for government open data); the completion of petitii.gov.ro (a tool similar to the e-petitions system the UK government uses); and the start of a project that aims to centralise data from freedom of information requests via transparenta.gov.ro.
And this is just the beginning of the story. Just a couple of years ago, whenever you brought up the notion of opening up government, the system’s almost immediate reaction would be “why? What’s wrong with what we have right now?”.
I have to admit that at times advocating for open government standards such as transparency, accountability and participation in Romania seems like a mission destined for failure – but we’ve changed too much to stop now. Open government should not depend on what political party is in power, but rather on government’s constant requirement to improve services and engage those that it governs. After all, as Yes Minister’s Sir Arnold put it, “if people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong”.