Shedding light on government, one dataset at a time
Today’s post is by Bill Below of the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development
Transparency in government is the solution to many ills. To begin with, it promotes honesty. It supports accountability. It limits the effects of undue influence on policy by special interest groups. The more transparency we have in both the public and private sector the better off we are. As a societal value, transparency stipulates that the business of business and that of government shall be conducted in the light of day.
Such openness is the very foundation of trust. To launch his revolution, Gorbachev used the most radical word he could find—glasnost—meaning “openness to public scrutiny”. It could be argued that that single word brought down the iron curtain, itself a metaphor for a society cloaked in secrecy, unaccountability and the opposite of transparency.
The formal idea of government transparency can be traced back to the Enlightenment—le Siècle des lumières. In the age of reason, science, with its open inquiry, insistence on reproducible results and relentless assault on conventional wisdom became a dominant social and intellectual trope. It was a case of data vs. dogma. Politically, it offered a perfect foil to the lack of accountability of opaque and absolutist regimes. It was that very movement that gave us modern constitutional democracy.
Today, the Open Government movement, the direct descendant of the philosophy of transparency, is widespread. Openness is considered by many OECD countries to be a best practice. This has been manifesting itself over the last decades through the increasing prevalence and reach of Freedom of Information legislation. The unwritten manifesto of this movement is that “open” is the default position of government information, with exceptions made when the individual privacy, commercial information and in some cases national strategic information must be protected. This means that government institutions must prepare for and be organised to make their information available to the public. Freedom of information laws are manifested in the so-called Sunshine Laws mandating public access to government records.
Open Government Data (OGD) is yet another extension of this larger movement. Among other roles, governments are enormous data gathering organisations. Open Data means that this data must be made freely available to the public. This can be a daunting task even for governments with the best of intentions. Not because they have something to hide, but simply because many governmental agencies and institutions are poorly equipped to do so. For those who succeed, however, the benefits are significant.
Increasing public awareness of government activities is only the starting point. Just as importantly, OGD can allow government and the public to evaluate the expenditure and performance of government services with a view to improving, or axing, them—after all, if you can’t measure it, how can you know if it’s working? Also, access to more datasets will provide the tools for evidence-based government decision making and more informed public participation (that squeal you hear is the sound of pork projects running for the hills).
But perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of OGD is that part you can’t predict. That is, the plethora of useful applications that people are coming up with as more and more datasets become available. For example, the aptly named sitorsquat takes information on publicly maintained toilets to guide you to the closest public loo in working order. How practical is that?! It seems obvious but someone had to think of it and municipal data had to be available to make it happen. Appropriately, Proctor & Gamble, makers of Charmin brand toilet paper are the sponsors. Yes, private businesses will use open government data to make a buck, a euro, a yuan or other. And that’s o.k., as most governments are keen to leverage their data to support an uptick in economic activity.
On a slightly different register, the US Department of Health and Human Services has released government data allowing the comparison of health care costs for the 100 most common treatments and procedures in 3,000 U.S. hospitals. The data revealed enormous variations in rates from one hospital to another, including one procedure that cost USD 8,000 in one hospital and USD 38,000 in another. This is information that can make a huge difference in the life and wellbeing of citizens. These are but two of the thousands of ways that OGD is bringing value to the public.
As part of its Open Government Data (OGD) work, the OECD has created OURdata, an index that assesses governments’ efforts to implement OGD in three critical areas: Openness, Usefulness and Re-usability. The results are promising. Those countries that began the process in earnest some five years ago, today rank very high on the scale. According to this Index, which closely follows the principles of the G8 Open Data Charter, Korea is leading the implementation of OGD initiatives with France a close second.
Those who have started the process but who are lagging (such as Poland) can draw on the experience of other OECD countries, and benefit from a clear roadmap to guide them.
Indeed, bringing one’s own country’s weaknesses out into the light is the first, and sometimes most courageous, step towards achieving the benefits of OGD. Poland has just completed its Open Government Data country review with the OECD revealing some sizable challenges ahead in transforming the internal culture of its institutions. For the moment, a supply-side rather than people-driven approach to data release is prevalent. Also, OGD in Poland is not widely understood to be a source of value creation and growth.
But Poland, as well as other countries, can take heart. A short time ago, today’s leaders in openness were in the same boat. By addressing legal, cultural, institutional and organisational issues systematically, and by sharing the experiences of other countries, progress was made. No matter how you measure it, government, business and the public are the clear winners.