No transparency organization can get away with…

No transparency organization today can or should get away with simply saying that their job is to put the data, information out there, and others will do the rest.

I don’t mean that every transparency organization should be responsible for the whole chain – from getting the data out, to ensuring its use, to ensuring its impact. But I do think that organizations should be cognizant and conscious of the broader ecosystem that they operate in, and seek out partnerships/advisory roles across that ecosystem.

IE transparency organizations whose job it is to get open data out there on foreign aid, or to advocate for a data standard on budget information, or indeed to advocate for stronger right to information laws etc. should plug in to the broader ecosystem they are part of. For example they could:

–       Publish and be clear about how they see change happening as a result of the data/information they will ‘liberate’.

–       Map the different steps through which that change may happen, and be explicit about where they see their own organization fitting

–       This is the key bit I think – link up with other organizations that themselves are responsible for the other steps in the chain, and explore possible partnerships, seats on advisory boards, how to help them achieve their goals (but without necessarily deviating from their own core mission)

Simple but hugely helpful for the field.

PS – thank you to Sunlight Foundation’s Tom Lee for pointing out that transparency also works by forestalling bad action, which is hard to second guess and/or measure.



11 thoughts on “No transparency organization can get away with…

  1. Pingback: Happy Sunshine Week: Transparency Report Cards, events in D.C., and advice for open government orgs | Campaign for Stronger Democracy

  2. Hi,

    I’ve been thinking about Martin’s post, and I’m not sure I agree. At least I think there is an important distinction here about the noble pursuit of collating data for the sake of advancing knowledge and informing debates, and the separate goal of using information to inform advocacy. In my experience many organisations working on ‘transparency’ exist with the aim of increasing public access to information, but they do so to advance an underlying political agenda. This creates a dilemma in that what and how information is gathered and presented is conditioned to support a subject, or political, end. To collate otherwise confidential or inaccessible ‘data’ in a neutral way is perhaps a critical function for organisations/individuals who want to promote democratic and deliberative processes. Organisations that try and improve transparency, or open data, without trying to do anything with the data may therefore have a legitimate and important role.

  3. I’m note sure I’m following you Andre. To me, it would be meaningless for an organization like IATI to work on making data technically accessible to the public if it is not done with the specific purpose of promoting accountability. As you write, it would mean that it is only done to advance an underlying political agenda. From my experience, technical transparency will lead nowhere unless the so-called transparency or transparent organization is clear about the end goal of its efforts and how they can bring about change, as Martin writes.

  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the reply. Perhaps I can try and make my point a bit better. Essentially what I was trying to say is that there is a role for organisations who focus on the task of getting access to information, collating this and making it accessible to people, but without getting involved in advocacy on what this information tells us. I agree that ATI organisations have to campaign for freedom of information (or transparency) and that is in itself a form of advocacy, but certain problems can arise in my view when organisations who play the function of increasing access to information embed this work within a wider political agenda. There is a blurring of roles here and the result can be a lack of impartiality. To give one example, there is an excellent organisation called ‘fish subsidy’ that has gained access to otherwise confidential data on EU subsidies in the fisheries sector. They have cleaned this data and made it available for others. many excellent reports are based on this data, and it has been a huge effort of Fish subsidy to collate all this information. In this way fish subsidy operates simply as a organisation that provides information for others to use. However, fish subsidy also, increasingly perhaps, does it own analysis and campaigning which seems to be informed by a critical perspective on European fishing in general and particularly on issues of illegal fishing. I find this work less interesting as it is quite biased, and I wonder whether their goal of critiquing the EU fisheries sector will start to influence what information they prioritize and how they present this. To put it simply, they may slide from being a fantastic source of data, to being another Greenpeace with a selective agenda and motives.

    I’m probably being harsh on Fishsubsidy here (and use them as an example only). But I do think there is a useful distinction between organisations playing the role of improving access to information in order to promote deliberative democracy, and organizations that operate as mediating organisations that use data for their own agendas. I’ve started an initiative, based around a wiki, that also aims to promote access to information in Africa’s fisheries, and the other NGOs I work with agree that this initiative needs to have a very separate identify from NGO campaigns, otherwise the information gathered starts to lack credibility. Operating as a wiki, I also think it is important that all stakeholders see it as a neutral resource, otherwise certain people and organisations will not use and interact with it.

    I’m sure the distinction I make here is difficult to sustain in reality, but my original point is that I don’t agree that organisations can not get away with simply saying their job is to put data out there for other people to use – in fact I think that is justifiable, or beneficial, in some contexts.

    Many thanks. Andre.

    • Hi Andre

      Sorry for the late reply. I think I agree with you though (and thank you for the excellent posts, which I have been mulling over).

      Essentially, what I am saying that transparency groups should be cognizant of the broader ecosystem, for example at the v least they should point other groups in the direction of the data and provide (several) examples as to how the data could be used. IE they could/should map out the various ways in which the data might be used. But I do not think (like you) that transparency-collating groups should necessarily be campaigning groups. If that makes sense?

      My fear is that groups otherwise just dump data out there that is either useful but not found by the right groups/citizens, or less useful (and might benefit from being pointed in one direction or another – e.g. talking to open data groups about focusing on accountability-relevant data, when they are perhaps more focused on socially-relevant data right now). I could expand on that last point…!

      Best, Martin

  5. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the follow up. I’m sitting in a hotel bar in Dar es Salaam where I’m facilitating a two day conference on corruption in natural resource sectors in Tanzania. As you can imagine, the topic of ‘transparency’ is of central importance.

    I think we are agreeing and I think this is a useful distinction between A) the process of collating and making information available and B) the process of how citizens use this information to influence and become empowered in political processes. You are of course right that organisation involved in A) need to think about how they can support B). Do you think the ‘transparency movement’ is neglecting B?

    One hazard that has come out from my experience on ‘transparency’ is the way those with power (donors, governments, international NGOs etc) support access to information, but limit truly deliberative democratic processes. They like ‘open government’ but want to control how this information is used and find it hard to allow people to dictate the agenda. It is a problem summarised by Noam Chomsky:

    “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

    I think this is an interesting quote for EITI, for example….

    Cheers, Andre.

  6. Hello Andre and Martin,

    Thanks for the interesting discussion and apologies for my late reply.

    Earlier this week, I made reference to your above comment, Andre, in the Aid Transparency forum managed by IATI on LinkedIn:

    This separate discussion follows an article that I published here:

    I was also in Dar recently on a transparency-related assignment. Small world…


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