Opening Lawmaking In The Russian Federation


For my second post on the new blog CrowdLaw, which we’re launching as part of Beth Simone Noveck’s Government 3.0 course at NYU Wagner, I’m reviewing Russia’s draft action plan for its admission to the Open Government Partnership (OGP). After previously articulating my definition of open government (which should probably be read first here), I’m now seeking to evaluate Russia’s overall plan in the context of that definition, and provide recommendations for improving Russia’s OGP plan with a focus on its specific OGP priority of: “Involvement of society in decision-making processes.”

Background: Open Government in the Russian Federation

It would be incorrect to suggest that a country labeled by Freedom House as “Not Free” and “Partly Free” is incapable of moving forward along the spectrum of openness simply because it does not conform to Western democratic ideals. At the same time, very real political constraints have historically limited the flow of information between citizens and the government of the Russia, with scarce opportunities for majoritarian participation in a government potentially more accurately described as adelegative democracy than a representative or deliberative democracy. Still, even if Russia is restricting the information it shares, if it is sharing more open data, then it is becoming more transparent. Similarly, even if it is opening up only very limited opportunities for participation, there will still be more opportunities than before. However, the ability for Russian citizens to build transit apps powered by newly released government data, for example, is best thought of as a source of economic development, not democratic expression. A more meaningful governance shift would be one in which citizens can better monitor and contribute to the policy- and lawmaking processes themselves.

Indeed, during our second class session, O’Reilly Media reporter Alex Howard tweeted our guest speaker, Chris Vein, with a legitimate question: is Russia’s open government strategy simply re-branded e-government? In other words, is it about making government services and information digital, versus going further to foster real transparency and citizen participation? In my opinion, the answer is no–there are elements of both.

Review of Russian Federation’s Open Government Action Plan

To Howard’s point, the vast majority of Russia’s initiatives do emphasize data sharing and transparency, or e-government-oriented initiatives such as Actions 16 and 18, which seem to endorse the use of digital capabilities to improve Russia’s supervision of utilities and procurements. Yes, many of their initiatives are also basic economic development improvements: Action 21, “Reduction of the time spent on procedures by business activity entities and the cost of these procedures,” has scant to do with open government and everything to do with business process reengineering. But other Actions seem to indicate a commitment on following through. Action 23 calls for “Development and implementing of programs for training/retraining of state employees in the area of informational openness”–aside from agency FOIA officers, can the same training commitment be said to be had in the United States? Action 24 wants “an independent system for evaluation of the work quality of organizations…” An Inspector General may not be anything new in most countries, but the component of “implementing of public ratings of their work” is exciting–few governments currently allow for the public aggregation of citizens’ ratings online, let alone the evaluation of the directors and senior officials themselves provided for in Action 22 (albeit therein limited specifically to investment climate improvement).

On the whole, Russia’s OGP plan, if implemented, poises the country to take significant steps forward along the openness spectrum that may not easily be walked back. Russia’s implementation of a FOIA-like system of public information requests (Actions 10.1-10.3) will undoubtedly run into delays and denials even more severe than in the U.S., but even a chronic cynic has to project at least some increase in openness. Similarly, Russia’s goal of funding grants to non-profits to monitor their openness progress (Action 12) could be highly meaningful if independently implemented, or completely useless if doled out to loyalist, superficially independent entities. Whether or not Russia’s plan is seen as a window or a facade will be dependent on the integrity of its implementation, but it cannot be said that there is not potential.

As indicated already, the plan’s later actions primarily focus on basic transparency and accountability reforms (which certainly are a step towards reducing corruption and improving governance quality). But the exciting changes that present genuine opportunities for  democratization are lurking in Actions 1, 2, 3, and 5, all of which lean toward Russia’s very first-listed priority of “Involvement of society in decision-making processes.” Again, implementation is everything, but some interesting ideas here:

  • Implementation of the “Russian Public Initiative…for public submission of proposals by citizens” (Action 1). This action seems may have been vaguely written intentionally, which could be good or bad. On a basic level, this could just mean some degree of citizen petitioning. I have to imagine that Russia would have to screen some petitions out judging by the wide range of proposals submitted on the U.S.’s We the People. Would the Russian Federation really allow proposals from secessionists? Petitions for President Putin to build a Death Star? It would also be difficult to imagine Russia going as far as Finland, which lets citizens submit petitions with high numbers of signatures directly to the legislature for an up-down vote. It’s too risky, but even the allowance of some proposals would be a shift along the openness spectrum.
  • Creation of a system for information disclosure about drafts of legislative acts under development and the results of their public discussion” (Action 2). At its worst, this could be a paltry synopsis of draft pieces of legislation with brief notes on any feedback from citizen hearings–still, better than the status quo, perhaps. At its best, it’d be the Git Hub for legislation that Clay Shirky always wanted–but the idea that Russia allow its agitators to prepare anti-incumbency laws is too unrealistic. Perhaps there’s a middle ground–beginning with the posting of more legislative drafts, evolving into an e-regulations portal (like the U.S. has), shifting toward a model where citizens’ can add in-text legislative comments (to be approved prior to posting by the government, perhaps), and ultimately providing some limited avenue for publicly-created laws so long as the process and curation was overseen by the state.
  • “Collection, analysis and classification of information about best practices and proposals regarding cooperation between expert organizations and government authorities…”(Action 3). Action 3 speaks mostly to collaboration with experts, though it hints at some exciting possibilities for the employment of peer networks (as does Action 6, albeit on performance management). Developed fully, this is the type of vehicle through which initiatives like Peer-to-Patent could be recommended, improving governance effectiveness through the crowdsourcing of citizen expertise.
  • “Expanded participation of citizens and organizations in forming of standards for rendering of state services and fulfilling of control over their execution” (Action 5). The forming of standards seems geared more towards participatory policymaking and budgeting (e.g., on what basis should services be divided or distributed among citizens, or how should a set of state grants be awarded?), while the element of controlling their execution seems to suggest participatory public administration. At the very least, this could mean blue ribbon committees of citizen experts getting more involved in standardizing state service delivery. At the most, it could mean something much more powerful: citizens forming local level policies and allocating funding among projects, then participating in the implementation of those policies and projects.

On the whole, Russia’s OGP action plan is thorough, ambitious, and well-intentioned. If I could share advice with their open government leaders (now paging Chris Vein), the summation of my feedback would be: “This action plan can be widely construed to endorse either marginal e-government improvements or incredible opportunities for improving the legitimacy and effectiveness of your government–you should aim as high as you can, and work to solve the riddles of implementing them in a Russian context.” With an emphasis on participatory policymaking, lawmaking, and budgeting, Russia might consider the following (with the applicable authorizing action in parentheses):

  • Allow online citizen petitions in the spirit of the U.S. “We the People” website (A1). For a Russian context, state actors might author a carefully-crafted acceptance policy that will allow state actors to screen out petitions that might threaten the sustainability of the system.
  • Allow citizens to markup both draft passed legislation and regulations online (A2), developing or harnessing tools like the one created by the Madison Project and applied to theU.S. Stop Online Piracy Act. To make it work in Russia, officials may need to apply filters and screening mechanisms, but is there anything seditionist about letting environmental scientists mark up a bill for wetlands protection, or provide recommendations for improving existing regulations on storm runoff?
  • Identify quick wins for peer networked governance (A3). It may not be Peer-to-Patent in Russia–but maybe it’s peer-to-procurement or peer-to-legislation. Perhaps it’s something even more basic like adopting fire hydrants to snow shovel in Moscow (a la Jennifer Pahlka’s TED Talk).
  • Endorse citizens’ drafting of legislation itself, in the spirit of the existing Russian company platform “WikiVote!” (A5). Provide a mechanism to push the content of citizen-drafted laws to the legislature for consideration, if not their precise language. Alternatively, empower officials to submit precise legislative sections and questions to the community, and carefully curate bills produced by platforms such as WikiVote!.
  • Enable the setting aside of a share of Federal, regional or municipal budgets for participatory budgeting (A5). Examples include the Participative Budget in Porto Alegre, Brazil and the Participatory Budgeting Project. At the municipal level in particular, funding allocation often is policy. Funds can be restricted to certain uses and subject to final adjustment and approval by officials, but a good faith implementation will inspire civic participation and improve constituents’ faith in their government.

Ultimately, the framework for a much more open government is there–what matters will be the creativity in and commitment to implementation.

Kevin Hansen can be found on Twitter as @kevinmhansen.

Note: This post was initially authored for the blog CrowdLaw and can also be found here.