Transparency and open data cannot compensate for a lack of accountability infrastructure, but well-designed programmes can increase opportunities for disclosure to lead to accountability. Enforcement and sanctions can be delivered through formal political means, or through social accountability.
Political accountability and enforcement
The final step in the chain of accountability is the threat and imposition of sanctions. As Schedler (1999) points out, “political accountability involves more than the generation of data and the interplay of arguments”, also requiring “rewarding good and punishing bad behaviour”.
There are some cases of open data feeding into formal sanction mechanisms, such as the example below from the US. However, these outcomes are only possible where enforcement mechanisms are already strong. There is no evidence that open data strengthens specific accountability mechanisms where these may be lacking. This is especially the case in developing country contexts, as highlighted in the 2004 World Development Report (World Bank, 2003), which places accountability relationships among policy makers, service providers, and clients at the core of development effectiveness.
For over 50 years, residents of the predominantly African-American area of Zanesville, Ohio, had limited access to clean water. After years of legal battles, one key piece of evidence used in court was a map derived from open data from the water company showing significant correlation between the houses occupied by the white residents of Zanesville and the houses hooked up to the city water line. The case went in favour of the African-American plaintiffs, awarding them a $10.9 million settlement.
Source: Rogawski et al. (2016)
Fox (2014) notes that there are often weaknesses in the state’s horizontal accountability institutions, and initiatives aimed at accountability are rarely well coordinated with relevant public sector reforms that encourage government responsiveness – for example, access to information, corruption investigative bodies, ombudsman etc. This appears to be the case in open data programming, which is rarely aligned with broader governance reforms.
Social accountability relies on civic engagement – on citizens or civil society organisations participating directly or indirectly in extracting accountability (Malena et al., 2004). For social accountability to be effective, citizens need realistic choice between services, public officials need to be willing to act on behalf of citizens, or the information released needs to increase the involvement of communities in the service (Kosack & Fung, 2014).
Intended beneficiaries of support programmes are not always aware of the investments being made in their area. Addressing these information asymmetries by not only publishing data, but also ensuring people who can press for accountability can access it, has the potential to bring about change, as demonstrated in this example from Uganda.
A survey in Uganda found that almost 80% of grants to local governments for primary school materials did not reach their intended beneficiaries. The government started publishing information on such transfers offline to increase access, for example in newspapers and on school bulletin boards. A follow-up survey found that as a result of this campaign, leakage declined from 80% to 20% of total grants (Reinikka & Svensson, 2004, in Khagram et al., 2013). Analysis by Paul Hubbard (2007) suggested, however, that success could not be attributed solely to the data disclosure, and that while information did play a critical role, other policies and reforms also helped explain the decline in corruption.
- Fox, J. A. (2014). Social accountability: What does the evidence really say? (GPSA Paper 1). Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Hubbard, P. (2007). Putting the power of transparency in context: Information’s role in reducing corruption in Uganda’s education sector (Centre for Global Development Working Paper Number 136). Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.
- Khagram, S., de Renzio, P., & Fung, A. (2013). Overview and synthesis: The political economy of fiscal transparency, participation, and accountability around the world. In S. Khagram, P. de Renzio, & A. Fung (Eds.), Open budgets: The political economy of transparency, participation, and accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
- Kosack, S., & Fung, A. (2014). Does transparency improve governance? Annual Review of Political Science, 17(1), 65-87. See open access draft version (2013).
- Malena, C, Foster, R., & Singh, J. (2004). Social accountability: an introduction to the concept and emerging principle (Social Development Papers: participation and civic engagement, Paper no. 76). Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Rogawski, C., Verhulst, S., & Young, A. (2016). Kennedy vs. the city of Zanesville, United States. New York: GovLab.
- Schedler, A. (1999). The self-restraining state: Power and accountability in new democracies. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
- Word Bank. (2003). World development report 2004: Making services work for poor people. Washington, DC: World Bank.