Open data initiatives across the world are stalling. The latest edition of the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer, which measures international governments’ efforts to make their information open to public access, found that commitment is slowing. Out of 115 governments, only seven had a statement committing to opening data by default — and within the 1,725 datasets surveyed across these countries, only 7% of the data was fully open.
Resilient reform in government: Lessons from open data leaders draws on the testimonies of four experts who have worked on open data policies in four different governments: the US, France, Kenya, and the Philippines. The report reveals that, in uncertain times, the prospect of new and unpredictable administrations can incite civil servants to push reforms through prior to the election.
“I think the prospect of an election and a change of government generally focuses the minds of leaders,” said Liz Carolan of the Open Data Charter, one of the report’s two co-authors. “But the report was more about using those particular moments to structure some thinking about how you might embed reforms or make them resilient.”
In each of the examples, public servants had to achieve open data reforms with an election looming. Most saw small teams working to coordinate reform across disparate government departments, whilst trying to ensure that the changes they made wouldn’t evaporate with a change of government.
“This idea of liberal consensus, of the way government should be, has been questioned by recent political developments like Trump and Brexit”
“The hierarchical nature of government, and the tendency of officials to be risk-averse and used to planning their work in a predictable manner, means you are always going against the grain with such initiatives,” says Ivy Ong, the program lead for open data in the Philippines Department of Budget & Management, in the report. “The environment you need for any kind of experimentation isn’t really there.”
The solution was to build cooperation across government departments. Ong asserts the importance of having “internal buy-in of open data champions within the various departments” over “just getting data out” – whereas, in France, each ministry within government was assigned its own open data specialist. “We recognised the need to maintain and reinforce the existing ecosystem, in order to make these initiatives sustainable and resilient in the face of political change,” said Romain Tales, who worked within the French government to develop its open data platform before the 2017 election.
“We made every possible effort to avoid so-called ‘political pollution’ from interfering with the process”
Recent elections have raised the prospect of open data movements being derailed completely. “There has been a shift in the consensus,” said Carolan. “Much of it has come from a change in leadership, for instance in the UK and the US. This idea of liberal consensus, of the way government should be, has been questioned by recent political developments with, for instance, Trump and Brexit, and it has forced people to either question that or think differently about what they’re doing, and what their focus is.”
In France, where more unpredictable candidates competed in the recent national election, it was necessary to secure open data reforms with legislation. “We made every possible effort to build the legislative base before the 2017 presidential election, in order to avoid so-called ‘political pollution’ from interfering with the process,” said Tales. Through a series of bills written in 2016 and 2017, enacted by decree, his team ensured that not only ministries – but also industrial and commercial public services, cities, and local governments of more than 3,500 inhabitants – were obliged to open their data to the public.
“There’s probably an element of over-promising and under-delivering”
After initial commitments from international governments saw relatively fast advances, open data reforms have hit more difficult ground in recent years. Part of this is a result of the intricate nature of reform, and the intangibility of results.
“There’s been a growing sense in the last 18 months to two years that political attention is drifting on from open data issues to newer questions, like algorithmic accountability or AI,” said Carolan. “Tangible results that can resonate have been slow to emerge, which makes it difficult to justify continual investment. The return on investment for a piece of intangible infrastructure is more difficult to measure than other types of investment, and I don’t think that these projects were necessarily sold in that way. There’s probably an element of over-promising and under-delivering.”
In the US, public servants focused on showing the value that open data reform can bring. “Capturing the value and impact of open government data remains a challenge,” says Cori Zarek, Former Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House and lead of the open government project. “The Data.gov team is working to track examples and launched an initiative specifically around data impact to draw attention to the importance of capturing these use cases.”
“Teams focused on the important role of non-governmental stakeholders and other users of government data through workshops, hackathons, data jams, and other engagement efforts to show the value of open government data,” says Zarek. Thanks to these efforts, the Trump administration remained committed to open government: “Those colleagues were quick to share that making progress on open data efforts would remain a priority,” she said.
“Capturing the value and impact of open government data remains a challenge”
In Kenya, the 2017 election offered the chance to reinvigorate a failing open data policy. The reforms stalled because no one department assumed overall responsibility – no one knew whose job it was to publish government data.
“The lessons other countries can learn from this is that there needs to be a greater focus on inclusivity, dialogue and more especially a whole of government approach, anchored by proper regulation, capacity building and resources from within government,” says Philip Thigo, Senior Advisor of Data and Innovation Strategy for the Office of the Deputy President in Kenya. The program stalled due to a lack of coordination, and as a result, experts left.
“However, initiatives can be revitalised by windows of opportunity such as elections,” says Thigo. “In the run-up to the General Elections, more Ministries started championing the open data, especially the Ministry of Agriculture and the Office of the Deputy President.”
Elections can spur public servants into action, or reinvigorate failing projects. It remains a challenge to tell the story of open data in government: why it is so important, and how it creates value. It’s a question public servants need to answer – and could be what helps to drive ambitious plans through to real and lasting reform.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Lorie Shaull)