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Six Questions to Protect Your Transparency Portal from “Zombie” Status

Seis preguntas para evitar que tu portal de transparencia se convierta en “zombi”:

Mia Katan|

Have you ever searched an online government transparency portal only to find that the vital information you hoped to find is not there or that the portal itself has disappeared? If so, you’re not alone. Over the last decade, the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) has reviewed countless commitments that promise to deliver a transparency portal as the antidote to a wide range of governance challenges.

These commitments often lead to a phenomena the IRM has come to call “zombie portals”. A zombie portal is a website that is not quite dead but also not alive. It could be a broken link with real potential to be useful if resurrected from its inactive state. Zombie portals could also appear as functioning websites at first glance, but closer inspection reveals they are devoid of useful content—remaining untouched by government or civil society.

Impactful transparency portals are alive with citizen and government engagement. “Human” infrastructure is just as essential during development as the technical aspects. Plus, commitments implemented through a participatory approach can lay groundwork for a reform that enhances civic participation. Government transparency champions can ask several questions in advance to ensure that their website does not join the army of zombie portals haunting the internet, including:

  • Is an online portal the answer to the policy problem? Are there existing websites or other resources that better address the problem at hand? Do the intended users have sufficient internet access to make the portal worthwhile? Sometimes the best solution is to close a zombie portal and focus on a tool that is better aligned with the policy objective.
  • How can we help the public and the government to actively use the portal? The existence and benefits of the portal should be communicated to the public, focusing on targeted groups as appropriate. Public servants will also need training to understand the portal’s value and to use the portal to its full potential and shift government culture. 
  • Who are the nongovernment partners best suited to help ensure the portal’s usability and accessibility? Many of the most successful transparency portals were designed in close collaboration with data experts and users. Nongovernment partners can provide technical know-how, test usability, and give feedback to help ensure the portal serves its intended purpose.
  • Is there a legal framework to guide and reinforce continuous portal maintenance and updates? A legal mandate that reinforces the portal’s objective can ensure that relevant government bodies continue to participate after the initial fanfare. Clear guidelines and processes on publishing information or responding to citizens can ease compliance and ensure high-quality standardized data.
  • Is there long-term funding allocated to maintain the portal over time? If the portal is initially funded by a third party, establish a plan from the start to ensure funding once the partner’s role ends.
  • Is there a technical team with a clear mandate to maintain the portal? The technical work does not end with the development of the portal. Ongoing maintenance and improvement requires dedicated technical support for the lifetime of the portal.

Transparency portals have the potential to advance open government and address many policy issues. Reformers can use the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to put the bones for a sustainable portal in place. Colombia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine have developed impactful public procurement platforms and have improved public services and cut costs. In Slovakia and the United Kingdom, portals are aiding the fight against corruption through transparency of companies’ beneficial owners.

With the right approach, the open government community can inoculate ourselves against zombie portals while advancing ambitious transparency reforms where it counts the most. For further guidance see Open Ownership’s Implementation Checklist for creating a public beneficial ownership register and the Open Contracting Partnership’s Best Practices for Developing Open Contracting Portals

What transparency portals stand out as an example? What other pitfalls put portals at risk of zombie status? Tell us in the comments below!

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