Open by Default

Cross-posted from the Publish What You Fund blog.

I am very fortunate to have been involved with Publish What You Fund since its launch alongside the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in 2008, at the Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness.

That was five years ago. Publish What You Fund and IATI come a long way since then (literally, from being a desk in ONE to an organisation with its own US Advisory Committee) as has the open government movement.

Transparency is now seen as a key pillar of development – a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to enable growth, accountability and social change.

We have witnessed a ‘transparency revolution’. The basic principle that aid information should be publicly available in easy to use, accessible formats is now accepted as an essential component of international development – from the debates around the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals to the hundreds of commitments made by countries part of the Open Government Partnership.

Our agenda is now promoted by heads of state the world over. The recent G8 in Lough Erne exemplifies this. In 2011, the world’s most prominent development actors – including the U.S. – had committed to publishing their aid information to a common standard in the Busan Agreement. But in last month’s Lough Erne declaration, all G8 countries specifically committed to publishing to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard by 2015.

That means providers of over 90% of official development finance flows are now involved in IATI. That is a huge achievement.

The Lough Erne Declaration also recognised that while IATI lays the groundwork for open aid data, it provides a data standard that can be applied to other development flows. This is huge. Publish What You Fund has already worked to encourage three climate finance funds to implement, and they are currently preparing to publish to IATI.

The debate has moved on from ‘why aid transparency’ to ‘how aid transparency’ – moving from commitment to delivery. Donors should remember that making aid fully transparent is about more than just publishing information – it is about publishing aid information that is accessible, useful and used.

This principle of usability was recognised in the G8 Open Data Charter. The Charter was launched at the Lough Erne G8 Summit and committed G8 members to make data open by default and set out ways to improve its quality, quantity and – above all – its usability.

Turning transparency promises into reality is hard. Understanding how and why people use information is even harder. This will be a challenging task. It will mean working closely with dozens of diverse partners to ensure the huge amounts of information, which are going to be released can actually be meaningful. The culture is changing, open is becoming the default. With sustained political will, 2013 can be the year IATI data is scaled up and used widely.

Why we should welcome a G8 Open Data Charter

This is republished from my article in the Telegraph:

Trust in government has rarely been at a lower ebb. Citizens in developed and developing countries alike feel increasingly disconnected from the political process and their political leaders. They complain of having too little influence over decisions, too little access to government information and too little control over their own data. In such an environment, suspicion and anger can erupt as we have seen across the world, and most recently in Istanbul’s Taksim square.

At the same time, governments are operating in very challenging circumstances. They have to meet rising expectations from their citizens with, thanks to the impact of the global financial crisis, often severely reduced revenues. They also face a whole range of pressures such as a demographic change which will make bridging this gap ever more difficult. There has never been a greater need for open and honest dialogue and for as wide a possible involvement in arriving at the right innovative solutions.

There is no single answer to these concerns. But it is clear that opening up government data must be a major element of the answer.  Open data has enormous potential to drive economic growth and spread prosperity. It improves accountability, strengthens governance, builds trust and drives innovation in both the private sector and the delivery of key public services.

There are already many examples from around the world that these benefits are already being delivered. In the UK, Mastodon C, a start-up incubated by the Open Data Institute, used open data on prescriptions by GPs to show that the NHS could have saved over £200 million by prescribing generic drugs instead of their more expensive patented equivalents.

In India, the technology platform I Paid A Bribe enables citizens to publicly log whenever they have been shaken down for a bribe. In Mexico, Compara Tu Escuela (Check Your School) empowers parents by providing them directly with information on school performance.

We all benefit as citizens and consumers, as economies and societies, if we get this right.  It is why the expected decision by the G8 countries to adopt an Open Data Charter at the G8 summit in Lough Erne is so important.

This would be an historic move and a genuine breakthrough for the growing movement to open up government and private sector data. It should mean that all G8 members agree to publish as much information as possible in a form, which is useable and accessible to all.

While there should be, rightly, exceptions to protect personal information, the default position should change from non-publication to publication of government data in a way which is timely, comprehensive, clear and does not impose costs on its users.

Such a move would fit in well with the wider agenda of the G8 this year, which is about reforming trade and bringing greater fairness and transparency to international taxation. Countries have understood they all benefit if there is much less secrecy about who pays what tax and where.

Agreeing the Charter, however, is only a first step if countries and citizens are to benefit from the decision to open up and democratise information. First, of course, we need to see governments meet not just the letter but also the spirit of the charter. Opening up data should cut across all G8 priorities, including tax, transparency on extractive industries, aid and land deals. Information that is released as open data and is fully searchable will enable governments and civil society to crack down on tax evasion.

This will include governments having the courage to realise that opening up will lead to calls for reform. They have a great deal to gain from encouraging greater engagement and participation in policy debates and decisions. They will also need to balance citizens’ concerns with privacy and the need for transparency of government data.

Secondly, we also need companies to follow the G8’s lead. They must consider how they can make as much of their data as possible open to the public. Thanks to recent European Commission directives and the US Dodd-Frank Act, extractive companies are required to be increasingly transparent on the revenues they pay to national government. All companies are sitting on a goldmine of information which is not commercially sensitive but which can help provide the missing piece of the jigsaw.

The more actors which open up data the greater the benefits will be. In just 20 months, the Open Government Partnership, which the UK currently co-chairs, has grown into a global movement comprising 59 members. They too must consider how they can make as much of their data as possible open to the public.

Finally, we need to see actual impact on people’s lives as a result of all this information. Overcoming barriers, formal and informal, to publishing data is only one half of the battle.  We need to help research institutions, civil society organisations, the private sector and individuals work together to find solutions to local, national and global problems thanks to this data.

Technology platforms have already allowed us to harness the collective power and wisdom of thousands to improve policies and public services. Open data can help us drive the next stage of this revolution, and enable millions to have their voices heard and save precious government funds.


OGP Rules of the Game

I worry that civil society advocates working on Open Government Partnership are making a tactical mistake.

There has been a lot of activity – rightly – around which OGP countries should be ‘in or out’. There were discussions in the past year around South Africa’s media bill (the so called ‘secrecy bill’) and whether it might impact the country’s OGP eligibility. Most recently the discussion has centered on Russia’s decision to ‘postpone’ its entry into OGP. Many had informally questioned whether Russia should have been eligible in the first place.

Whilst important, such a strong focus on eligibility misunderstands the nature of the Partnership. The Open Government Partnership is not a ‘good performers’ club’. If it was, it would entail setting a high bar for entry and focusing civil society attention on getting new countries in to meet the entry standard and monitoring those that fall behind with a view to expelling them. OGP is different. It purposefully sets a low bar for entry and then seeks to encourage countries in a ‘race to the top’ by rewarding excellence and penalizing backsliding or inaction. Here is where as a community we could do a lot more to ensure OGP succeeds in these precious formative years.

There are currently three basic rules of the game for OGP – we should refine and strengthen these and I would suggest to also add a ‘relevance check’.

(1) Civil society participation: this is the defining factor of the Open Government Partnership. Civil society sit on the OGP steering committee, are represented at co-chair level, are involved in the drafting, co-creation and implementation of OGP national action plans. Yet the OGP guidance on participation of civil society (which the Independent Reporting Mechanism uses as the standard to measure countries against) is far too broad, weak and focuses only on the drafting of a country’s initial action plan.There are just five basic steps that focus on ‘consultation’: we could and should do better. There is so much more we could be doing here, from using platforms like OpenIdeo to co-create action plans, to setting up innovative civil society/government/private sector collaborations to make them happen. More on this in a future post.

(2) The OGP ‘stretch’: no country action plan should merely coast on past successes, or bottle prior commitments under the pretense of new. The only reason to be part of OGP is  to ‘stretch’, to innovate and try something new, different, possibly uncomfortable at first. This idea was present from the very genesis of the Partnership – countries should make ‘stretch commitments’ in their action plans that take them beyond their comfort zone into new territory. It is then that OGP really starts to makes sense: countries then need support from their peers to make it happen, the networking mechanism matches idea/innovator/implementer etc. We need to be much much clearer on defining what ‘stretch’ means. More on this shortly.

(3) A ‘relevance check’: even if we get the above two right, there will always be countries where the finished product – the country action plan – may be completely off the mark and perhaps not even have much to do with open government at all (e.g. ‘faster marriages for pregnant women’, ‘cleaner beaches’, ‘tweets about drug traffickers‘) ! This could happen for a number of reasons (we failed to connect with open government reformers, civil society was not engaged etc.). At present, there is no safeguard: an action plan is finalised and is put into the system, no questions asked. We need a better relevance check.

(4) The Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM): this is where the heart of the action has taken place so far. OGP watchers will have a view on this, but regardless of how well we do on the IRM and how much it incentivises government and civil society to implement better open government commitments, it will always be post-hoc. By definition, the IRM comes after the action plans have been designed, implemented etc.  So we need to worry about the totality of the process described above as well as engage with the reporting mechanism.

This won’t be enough – these are necessary but not sufficient rules. But if we can at least get these right, we will I hope have helped towards building and iterating towards an even better Open Government Partnership that delivers meaningful change.

Comments are valued, please let me know your views.

New US open data policy

Am sure no-one missed the White House’s executive order on Open Data but have found a quick list of relevant links to be helpful:

From the White House

From Sunlight Foundation


From Personal Democracy Forum

The Guardian on comparing US and UK approaches to open data

The actual memorandum is here

Todd Park’s blog on the White House site

The blog that gives helpful background on related innovations going on

And the You Tube version! is here

This week in Transparency and Accountability

Really great blog by David Eaves on open data

“Look at CKAN and Socrata. Most people believe these are open data portal solutions. That is a mistake. These are data management companies that happen to have simply made “sharing (or “open”) a core design feature.

Another good article on open data: “open data only exists in relation to a broader information system that gives it meaning: open data as a thing-in-itself does not exist in the real world.”

From Open Data to Information Justice (v. 1.1)

And another great article, questioning the role that NGOs should play in the open data landscape – gather and publish data, or focus on advocacy?

Ethan Zuckerman on how to use the energy of election monitoring groups post-elections – get them to monitor infrastructure and services

What does the U.S. taxpayer get for that $50 billion? great post on IATI by Publish What You Fund US Advisor Rodney Bent …

The investees of Global Integrity’s TESTING 123 program are now announced. Nice idea in that they have few investees (5) and small grants ($10,000) so should be able to dig deep and provide real support.

Check out the Center for Global Development’s parallel Fermanagh Declaration, highlighting what success at the G8 could look like

Interesting from TechPresident on NYC BigApps “re-inventing” the Hackathon

Follow the Money, Follow the Data

Some thoughts which I hope may be helpful in advance of the ‘follow the data’ hack day this week-end:
The open data sector has quite successfully focused on socially-relevant information: fixing potholes a la, adopting fire hydrants a la My sense is that the next frontier will be to free the data that can enable citizens, NGOs and journalists to hold their governments to account. What this will likely mean is engaging in issues such as data on extractives’ transparency, government contracting, political finance, budgeting etc. So far, these are not the bread and butter of the open data movement (which isn’t to say there aren’t great initiatives like But they should be:
At its heart, this agenda revolves around ‘following the money’. Without knowing the ‘total resource flow’:
  • Parents’ associations cannot question the lack of textbooks in their schools by interrogating the school’s budget
  • Healthcare groups cannot access data related to local spending on doctors, nurses
  • Great orgs such as Open Knowledge Foundation or BudgIT cannot get the data they need for their interpretative tools (e.g. budget tracking tool)
  • Investigative journalists cannot access the data they need to pursue a story

Our field has sought to ‘follow the money’ for over two decades, but in practice we still lack the fundamental ability to trace funding flows from A to Z, across the revenue chain. We should be able to get to what aid transparency experts call ‘traceability’ (the ability to trace aid funds from the donor down the project level) for all, or at least most fiscal flows.

Open data enables this to happen. This is exciting: it’s about enabling follow the money to happen at scale. Up until now, instances of ‘following the money’ have been the fruit of the hard work of investigative journalists, in isolated instances.

If we can ensure that data on revenues (extractives, aid, tax etc), expenditures (from planning to allocation to spending to auditing), and results (service delivery data) is timely, accessible, comparable and comprehensive, we will have gone a long way to helping ‘follow the money’ efforts reach the scale they deserve.

Follow the Money  is a pretty tangible concept (if you disagree, please let me know!) – it helps demonstrate how government funds buy specific outcomes, and how/whether resources are siphoned away. We need to now make it a reality.

Why is the OpenGov movement siloed?

As a follow up to my post ‘on the open government movement and silos’ quite a few people came back to me asking ‘well this is all very nice but why are open government groups not working better together?’ So here’s a shot at answering the question:

First, why should we seek to build a global open government movement?

(1) so that groups can work better, more strategically together to solve common problems (e.g. budget groups working with freedom of information and open data groups to make budgets public)

(2) so that we approach politicians and citizens with one common discourse around open government (and so we do not remain locked in our ‘geek box’). The fact that this year’s G8 summit will focus on transparency is a testament to how far we’ve come in convincing high level politicians that our agenda matters.

But why aren’t groups working together more effectively? Here is what I have heard from groups so far:

(1) Each community of practice (whether budget groups, freedom of information, open data groups, extractives’ groups) has its own language, discourse, way of working, basic reason for why they are doing this in the first place (e.g. whether to deepen democracy or decrease poverty) which can be a big barrier to doing business together

(2) NGOs are in competition for limited resources: why should civil society groups make an effort to coordinate when they will ultimately be competing against each other for a limited pot of funding?

(3) Coordination, partnership is hard work! Why do it unless there is a clear pay-off at the end? With limited resources to start with, why should CSOs work and partner together, when they could forge ahead with their own agenda (perhaps faster)?

What can we do about it and what is the role of the gatekeepers / gate makers?

(1) What can donors do? How can we better resource CSOs? Do large funds such as Making All Voices Count and GPSA help?

(2) What can international and national processes like Open Government Partnership (OGP) do to help bring people together? In my experience in the UK, OGP is playing a huge role in bringing together a broad group of civil society groups working on opengov that had previously never met nor worked on a common platform.

Ideas welcome! And I will mull over myself some more…