[RESEARCH] Making Transparency Stick: The Dynamics of Open Data

As part of our research efforts, here’s the another update on the most important research on FOI and open data all over the world, by our intern Alexandre Salha, a researcher who worked on access to information in his native Lebanon. Today’s analysis focuses on the effectiveness of open data policy, as explored in a paper by researcher Ben Worthy.

#opengov (publicity, accountability, transparency) venn diagram - Foto di Justin Grimes (CC BY-SA 2.0)https://www.flickr.com/photos/notbrucelee/6166628554
#opengov (publicity, accountability, transparency) venn diagram – Foto di Justin Grimes (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this paper, Ben Worthy identifies – based on the UK reform – the indicators of successful and/or failing Open Data policies.

In fact, he argues, the fate of these policies depends on the synergy built between enactment and post-enactment. Plus “policy feedback” plays an important role in assessing the impact of any reform. A strong feedback is able to build collective support among all involved actors to remake politics.

The Open Data policy in this paper is summarized under the UK’s Transparency Agenda which includes sub-policies:

  • Publishing spending data

  • Publishing service data

  • Platforms

  • Running experiments

  • Legal reforms

  • Charters and international agreements

During the enactment phase, Worthy identifies the Vision, the Symbolism and the Mechanics of Open Data policy.

First, “the vision of Open Data is powerful yet vague”. Under the umbrella of transparency, it has political, social and economic impacts on the nation as a whole. It can be used to promote more accountability, to develop public participation and/or to enhance economic growth and innovation. Hence Open Data is also unclear.

Some mistaken thoughts about technology of Open Data being as a solution for political problems are made, a very deterministic thought, standing between technology of Open Data and the politics of Open Government.

Second, Open Data is a symbolic policy yet voteless. According to Worthy, it offers on one side, transformative opportunities to remake politics under the democratic values, such as accountability, participation and empowerment; but, on the other side, although it attracts political support, it bring no electoral advantages.

Third, the reform has specific instruments, experimental applications, platforms, legal instruments, instruction, and code of practice, which define the responsibility of different actors accordingly.

In fact, Open Data policy mainly falls in the hands of the Prime Minister office. Plus for the UK Open Data National Action Plan for 2013-2015, different departments and bodies are involved in the draft. From national, regional and local government, to NGOs, charities and innovators, every entity contributes in the design of the policy, which also affects the private sector through company records.

There are three elements to assess the impact and durability of the policy in a post-enactment phase: Resource, Interpretation and Institution support.

In terms of resource, he claimed that the lack of clear feedback mechanism in the UK agenda makes it difficult to estimate the policy’s benefits. Therefore three indirect indicators helped him in this assessment:

  • users, they can provide feedback which is sometimes misleading;

  • outcomes, they are difficult to measure, it takes time for a policy to show some results that are sometimes disappointing, such as the disclosure of senior civil servants salaries in the UK which did not achieve its objective of cost reduction;

  • assumptions, when mistaken, they can unfortunately lead to doubts and skepticism among those who support the policy, like the inaction of citizens following scandals.

With regards to interpretation, Open Data policy has an unconditional support from any party or coalition in power, and different groups outside the government. However, various interpretations among these entities could hinder the policy. On one side politicians are more likely to modify their support all along the process at the expense of the symbolic power of Open Data; they shift their involvement from a democratic-driven policy towards more economic benefits. On the other side, because of ideological disagreements, conflicts between non-governmental groups weaken the implementation of the policy.

What “open data” means – and what it doesn’t - Foto di Opensource.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)https://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5265955179
What “open data” means – and what it doesn’t – Foto di Opensource.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At last two aspects can be examined in the existence or lack of institutional support.

First, policy drive institution concerns the very different mechanism a policy should pass through before reaching a vote, thus it makes it more consensual and vulnerable. Second the institutional enthusiasm which is shown by the political support of official bodies. In fact, not all the department are pro-active with regards to the Open Data policy, only few of them are enthusiastic. Plus, worst case scenario is the weak support within the administrations, on local, regional and national levels; and the rivalry between departments driven by secrecy.

Finally, Worthy draws a comparison with the Freedom of Information Act, another important policy within the scope of transparency measures.

As a start, both are symbolic and voteless. In terms of resources, they both promise a series of benefits, yet non-material and difficult to measure. Nevertheless, Worthy states that FOIA has led to more accountability and scandals, such as MP’s expenses. And so FOIA is more effective in its use at local level as a micro-political tool. Plus, FOIA was able to affect people’s behaviour which most probably led to more resistance and signs of unhappiness.

Unlike Open Data, FOIA is more subject to disagreements in the public. Although the media, NGOs and journalists openly support the FOIA, politicians and public officials are more reluctant. According to Worthy, they claim they have lost control following scandals, they say that it negatively affects decision making and is very costly.

At last, similarly to Open Data, FOIA depends on leadership, culture and context. However, FOIA possess a clear institutional support. The UK Parliament hailed FOI as a pillar of democracy, plus the Information Commissioner, Second Tier Tribunal and IPSA are public bodies that make FOI inseparable from the system.

In conclusion, Worthy focuses on two main particularities of Open Data policy: it is a successful policy because it has strong political support and a powerful narrative; but it shows signs of failure when there are a strong opposition within the administrations, hidden agendas, confusion and a variety of mechanisms.

However, he clearly states that the next few years will be crucial in defining the success of Open Data policy.

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