What Citizens Can Teach Civil Servants About Open Government

Brazil's largest city is embarking on an ambitious experiment to educate its public employees on the benefits of transparency.
by , | December 17, 2015

María Hermosilla

A graduate research assistant at The Governance Lab

Beth Simone Noveck

Director of The Governance Lab and a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer

Downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil (FlickrCC/PRODiego Torres Silvestre)

An open government is one that is transparent, participatory and collaborative. But moving from traditional government operating behind closed doors to more open institutions, where civil servants work together with citizens to create policies and solve problems, demands new skills and sensibilities.

As more and more American public-sector leaders embrace the concept of openness as a positive force for governmental effectiveness, they would do well to look toward Brazil's largest city, where an unusual experiment was just launched: an effort to use a variation on crowdsourcing to retrain Sao Paulo's 150,000 civil servants. It's described as the world's largest open-government training program.

The program, known as Agents of Open Government -- part of a wider city initiative called "Sao Paulo Aberta" (Open Sao Paulo) -- aims to teach through peer-to-peer learning, where government employees learn from citizens. Twenty-four citizen-led courses that began last month are aimed not only at government employees and elected community representatives but also at social activists and the general population.

Sao Paolo is betting on the radical notion that learning can happen outside of formal civil-service training colleges. This initiative reflects a growing global trend toward recognizing that institutions can become smarter -- more effective and efficient -- by making use of the skills and experience of those outside of government.

Officials hope to have 25,000 participants over the course of the coming year. To encourage public employees' participation, city workers who attend the courses gain credits in the municipal evaluation system that allow them to get pay raises.

Any of Sao Paulo's 11 million residents is eligible to apply to become an "open government agent" and provide training in any of four subject areas: open and collaborative technology; transparency and open data; networked communication; and mapping and collaborative management. The only requirement is that a would-be trainer commit to offering the course 10 hours per month for six months for 40 people per class. Since only half of Brazil's population has Internet access, the training is done in person. The city offers spaces for training (such as libraries, schools and cultural centers), and trainers receive a stipend of 1,000 reals a month (about $270 US).

Sao Paulo's call to citizens  
Sao Paulo's call to citizens to become open-government training agents: "Do you communicate through networks? Do you promote participation? Do you understand open data? Do you master open software?"

For teaching the initial 24 courses, Sao Paulo's Open Government Committee received 200 applications and selected 48 to be trainers. They come from a variety of backgrounds: 42 percent are women and 40 percent are minorities. The journalist and writer Martha Lopes is teaching is teaching a course titled "Gender and Power -- Rebuilding Communication in Networks." Wellington Da Silva, a technologist and MBA, is teaching "Introduction to Programming Logic Applied to Open Government." And the video producer Osvaldo Santana is teaching "Multimedia Creation and Dissemination." Other courses encompass subjects from "cultural cartography" to marketing through social networks to hacker activism.

Organizers explained that, at least in the program's first phase, they didn't want government to define the formats and specific subjects but wanted to tap into what citizens were already doing in the city. It remains to be seen whether in future iterations the city will do more to curate particular subjects and how it might go beyond the "open call" approach to enlisting trainers to target those with specific know-how.

What also remains to be seen is whether and how these citizen courses ultimately change how Sao Paulo governs, makes policies and solves problems, and whether course participants are better able to serve the public. At a minimum, the organizers' goal -- one they seem on the way to achieving -- is that more civil servants are being exposed to the topics of open government, which could in itself contribute to their effectiveness in governing.

Correction: Due to an editor's error, an earlier version of this column referred to Sao Paulo as Brazil's capital city. Brasília is the federal capital of Brazil.

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