Avoidance of meaningful reforms

While there are many international initiatives driving the open data and transparency agendas, the literature shows that successful implementation requires local ownership and the political will to battle vested interests and change long-held work practices, and to engage meaningfully with users. (See especially: Avila et al., 2010; Davies, 2012; Attard et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2015; Zuiderwijk et al., 2012.)

The latest Open Data Barometer report found that ‘open-washing’ – making weak or superficial efforts to publish data without full integration with broader transparency commitments, analogous to ‘green-washing’ in the environmental sphere – is “jeopardising progress” (World Wide Web Foundation, 2015). It found that some governments had made public pronouncements of open data commitments but had failed to implement “a culture of openness where citizens are encouraged to ask questions and engage, supported by a legal framework”. In fact, it noticed backsliding on freedom of information, transparency and privacy indicators in some countries.

A study of open data reforms found that, in many cases, public bodies avoid publishing data that is politically important or economically valuable, and instead “publish as many data sets as possible in comparatively poor quality” (Hunnius et al., 2014). This, the authors say, has led to data catalogues that are “cluttered with uninteresting and incoherent data which is of little use to the actual users”.

This is supported by Fox’s (2007) observation, based on work in the field of transparency, that those wishing to avoid disclosing information will “express opposition indirectly, by providing less than clear transparency”. He refers to “opaque or fuzzy transparency”, and the dissemination of information in a way that does not reveal how institutions actually behave or that turns out to be unreliable. This does not aid accountability processes, as “one should not expect answerability from opaque transparency”.

Missing data is another challenge. While the aim of data revolution activities is to address this gap (see IEAG, 2014), the absence of quality data, and fear of embarrassment at revealing this absence, further complicates efforts towards data publication and transparency.

However, ‘opaque’ data publication is a problem, and international programmes play a role in it. Open government reforms are increasingly being used as a metric or milestone for governments that can, in some cases, unlock donor funding. This can create strong incentives for visible outputs such as portals or policies, but is not necessary for the kind of deep reforms and engagement required to release valuable data.

In the push for open data, there is a risk of failing to ‘think politically’- to recognise that governance institutions are shaped by power relationships, culture, interests and incentives, not just laws, processes and institutional forms (see Halloran, 2014). Writing about international transparency and accountability initiatives, Guerzovich and Shaw (2013) highlight that when we think politically we see that “the focus must not only be on laws, formal institutional processes, and best practices, but also on the politics of realizing on-the-ground outcomes.”

Some open data programmes may involve what Andrews (2013) describes as “isomorphic mimicry” – superficial reforms limited to what is needed for the appearance of legitimacy. In the open data sphere, this manifests itself as the building of a portal or publication of an official policy without any change of culture or mindset, or meaningful ongoing data publication. See, for example, criticism of Kenya’s open data process (Brown, 2013).

There has been limited analysis within the open data field of how programming is operating from this perspective – a gap that needs addressing urgently if lessons from governance reform efforts in other sectors are to be learnt.