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How to defend openness when it’s under threat

Robert Palmer|


Tomorrow will be Open Data Day, but I want to take you back to August 2007. Barack Obama, a freshman senator fighting for his party’s presidential nomination, claimed that his administration would be the most transparent in history.

“I’ve spent my life trying to open up the political process to people, and I believe we can do it again. And when we do that, we will have a government that listens to their voices and finally responds to their best hopes once more”.

Fast forward 10 years. President Trump is giving his first press conference. He attacks the media and dismisses concerns over his business holdings by pointing out that conflict of interest legislation simply doesn’t apply to the president

The last decade has seen growing support for the idea that greater government transparency and evidence-based policy making will improve the lives of citizens. In theory, transparency of government information can make service delivery more efficient by allowing outsiders to spot problems in the provision of public services. Opening up government information has enabled citizens to better understand how their government is procuring services, running their elections, and delivering on its commitments, to name just a few examples.  

Before I started at the Open Data Charter, I worked at Global Witness on making it harder for corrupt officials to stash their loot in the western financial system. A key getaway car for those with dirty money to hide is an anonymously-owned company, where information on the ultimate, beneficial owner is hidden from the public.

My first real taste of open data in action was when I spent a weekend with 30 volunteers from DataKind-UK combing through the first information from the new UK beneficial ownership register. Because it was published in an open format we were able to identify thousands of potentially incorrect filings, including 10 people who listed their nationality as Cornish. Compare this with the just 10 or so cases of bad data that the government register itself was dealing with.

This is just one small example of where open data allowed a third party group to improve data quality in a way that government itself wasn’t able to.

However, there are two serious threats to the transparency movement.

The first is that the initial promise that openness, and in particular open data, would lead to radical change in outcomes for citizens hasn’t happened, despite some good individual examples. There is a danger that the transparency agenda – once fashionable in international politics – becomes yesterday’s fad.

The second threat is the broader political environment, where experts are dismissed and authoritarianism is on the rise. In this world, the gains to date, whether it’s the Open Government Partnership, or beneficial ownership transparency, feel fragile.

These challenges can feel pretty disheartening.

But there’s an opportunity here. I think now is the time for us to become more political. This doesn’t mean that we need to be partisan or support a particular party. Instead, we must position the decision to open up government information as a political, not technocratic, one. We must sell openness as a core value for governments who respect and serve citizens.

The Open Data Charter is a collaboration between governments and experts who agreed six Principles for how governments should be publishing information. The shared aspiration was that government data should be open by default, timely and interoperable.

Our goal at the Charter is to embed a culture of openness in government and make it resilient to political change. We will do this by championing a realistic vision of how open data can be a tool to enable better government – it isn’t an end in itself. This will only be possible by working with other organisations and governments committed to openness.

While I see substantial challenges to the work we all do, there is also opportunity. Openness should be on the side of empowered citizens, innovation, and the fair allocation of resources; it should be against authoritarianism, fake-news and corruption. In my view this will need an explicitly political message that openness in government is essential if we want to improve the lives of all of us.  


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