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Aligning Supply and Demand for Better Governance: Open Data in the Open Government Partnership

Joseph Foti|

The Independent Reporting Mechanism of OGP is one of the initiative’s key accountability components. IRM national researchers in OGP countries assess the ambition and completion of OGP commitments. But the IRM does not only carry out assessment, it also synthesizes information on key topics in OGP action plans. Authors Sonia Khan and Joseph Foti are taking a closer look at OGP commitments in open data. (See here for our general technical/synthesis paper and here for a paper on public participation in Latin America.)

For the release of the IRM’s third synthesis paper “Aligning Supply and Demand for Better Governance: Open Data in the Open Government Partnership,” we present a Q&A for the reader-on-the-go.

Top Ten Take-Aways From the Report

1. Why open data? Why do this paper now?

Open data is the third most popular topic in OGP action plans – after participation and access to information. (About 240 of 2000 commitments use the phrase “open data.” Of course, there are almost definitely more, but we only included the ones that explicitly use the phrase, as we cannot be sure what other commitments are clearly open data.) We wanted to know how successful these commitments are and decided to call on Tim Davies, formerly of the World Wide Web Foundation, to help us analyze the data. This is the third in a series of papers prepared by the IRM to help synthesize the most popular topics in OGP as shown in the working groups. See here for a copy of the data base and here for a definition of tags. Please feel free to try our new OGP Explorer here which allows users to search the database according to country, commitment, or policy area.

2. Is open data becoming more or less popular in OGP?

Open Data commitments continue to grow in popularity; of the countries with two action plans, all saw absolute or relative increases in open data commitments. The trend might be divisive, with proponents stressing open data’s potential for tremendous impact, while others fear open data commitments are often nothing more than empty promises made by “closed” governments. This is why it is so crucial that we that we create powerful open data commitments.

3. What can be done to make open data commitments more powerful?

The United Nations Development Programme says it best–access to information works when it is useable, useful, and used. Most of the open data commitments so far have been focused on usability (for example, making data available, discoverable, machine readable). A smaller group of commitments actually set in motion processes to ensure that the data being released is high-value for the various publics that would use data. Most importantly, though, OGP commitments can be made really impactful by ensuring that, where they put out governance data, that there are actually open, participatory forums where members of the public and officials can apply the data to make government more efficient, effective, and accountable.

4. Are the open data commitments in OGP actually increasing transparency and accountability?

This is a complex question. What we know is that open data commitments are being implemented at roughly the same rate as other commitments. At the same time, IRM researchers have assessed the commitments as being potentially more impactful than the average OGP commitment. Of course, this only speaks to how much the commitments are affecting open data policy in a given sector or as a policy area itself. Judging how well an action plan has a macro-impact in a country is, at the end of the day, a bigger question than IRM reports can answer.

5. What are the most common types of open data commitment?

So far, the majority of commitments focus on tools–technical building blocks such as open data platforms, machine-readable formats and open standards. Licence and re-usability permissions were slightly less popular as were efforts to promote open data within governments. While some might say that governments should build the system first, and then set priorities on what should be published, others would argue that the the question of “what” should be tackled before the “how.” A couple of countries have moved from a first action plan which emphasized infrastructure to a second plan with growing emphasis on matching public demand with supply. But this is probably too small of a number. Too many other governments are using the “if you build it they will come” approach, hoping they’ll get lucky and citizens will use the data presented to them.

6. Do OGP commitments address particular sectors of government or are they meant for all parts of government? Do we see any differences in approaches?

About one third of OGP’s open data commitments address specific sectors. In order to be more useful, open data will need to have on-the-ground impacts for citizens. Most civil society groups are concerned with specific issues and work in “sectors” often dealing with particular ministries like health or environment.  The most popular sector by far is budgeting, followed distantly by health, natural resources, and aid. There is a long tail of other commitment areas covering just a few things. An interesting finding is that sector-specific data sees a higher rate of completion than whole-of-government reforms.

7. A number of notorious open data programs have been launched to much fanfare, but haven’t been updated in months or years. Can OGP solve that?

In order to join the OGP, countries are asked to endorse the aspiration of the Open Government Declaration, which asks for the creation and implementation of mechanisms for request and prioritization of data as well as updated, regular production of information.  One of the paper’s most important findings is that OGP stakeholders, especially the Open Data Working Group, can play a role in helping to share model commitments that support these types of arrangements.

8. What is open-washing and are OGP governments participating in it?

Open-washing is the attempt by a government, corporation or civil society organization to give the appearance of being “open” while actually keeping the most important decisions and actions closed. In many first OGP National Action Plans, countries included open data goals which looked very impressive due to size or content area, but there was little evidence effective use or impact. OGP can change this by encouraging governments and civil society to create open data commitments based on citizen’s real needs and demands.

9. In order to ensure that citizens living in developing countries are able to benefit from the sale of natural resources, civil society groups been calling for greater transparency in field of natural resources. Has the OGP been used towards this end?

Nine open data commitments (fourteen percent) relate to natural resources, with the overwhelming majority (almost 90%) focusing on extractives. With more African countries joining the initiative, this figure will likely grow.

10. Were current concerns about surveillance and privacy reflected in the OGP’s open data commitments?

Seven commitments (three percent) made by five countries set limits on the release of personal and private data. Among these countries’ commitments to privacy, many mentioned health care in particular.

Open Government Partnership