The politics of data disclosure

A ‘Catch-22’ of open data and transparency for accountability is that the high-value data needed is quite often held by, and must be released by, the same institutions we wish to hold to account. Getting data and information published requires political will, incentives and strategic engagement. While international trends and pressures have helped drive the spread of public pronouncements on open data, implementation of data disclosure is influenced by the political reality on the ground.

The problem is perhaps most plainly articulated by the United States Government’s head of open data, who recently said “right now, it is irrational for almost anybody who works in government to open data… if he fails to open data, worst case, nothing bad happens. But if he does open some data and it has [personal information] his worst case is he’s hauled before a legislative subcommittee, grilled, humiliated and fired” (Wood, 2016).

In understanding the political economy of data release, we can draw on analysis from the transparency field. Lessons from promoting fiscal and budgetary transparency (Khagram et al., 2013) identify three internal competitive dynamics that can drive decisions to disclose information:

  • Reform-minded political entrepreneurs can gain support by adopting platforms of transparency and participation after highly publicised scandals involving public resources, or other crises.
  • Political elites can use increased transparency as a tool for competition, particularly around elections.
  • Political elites can gain from aligning themselves with an important constituency or a well-organised domestic civil society pressing for openness.

These dynamics can be discerned in examples of open data adoption. In Burkina Faso, a fledgling open data initiative was given a strengthened mandate and budget by an interim administration that saw open data as “a vehicle for distinguishing itself from the previous administration – open, transparent, and better at engaging with the public” (Carolan, 2015a). In Slovakia, the decision to reform public contracting was taken in the aftermath of large-scale street demonstrations against the government, described in The Financial Times as being motivated by Slovaks’ “discontent with official cronyism and corruption” (Cienski, 2012).

Open contracting in Slovakia

In the wake of street demonstrations, Slovakia introduced a regime requiring that all documents related to public procurement (including receipts and contracts) be published online. Between 2011 and 2014, over 780,000 contracts were published in an open, machine-readable format. Portals with the data attract approximately 54,000 visits a month. Reforms appear to have had an effect on perceptions of corruption, with Slovakia one of the most improved countries on Transparency International’s index in the same period, jumping 12 places.

Source: Adapted from Clare et al. (2016)

Further insight can be found in work building international norms around transparency of budgetary information. Analysis by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) (2015) from the fiscal transparency sector highlights two areas where international dynamics can affect domestic political calculations:

  • Donors and advocacy coalitions can pressure governments to become more open and inclusive, or the perception that openness and inclusiveness are modern and appropriate practices can press political actors to change.
  • Given the strong relationship between increased budget transparency and higher credit ratings and lower borrowing costs, public commitments to openness can be seen as showing international financial markets that governments are serious about their fiscal responsibilities.

One aspect of this is the desire to be seen to do well in international rankings. The Open Data Barometer is particularly potent in this regard, and a target around advancing on this ranking has featured in more than one government policy.

Budget disclosure in Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines

  • An open budget initiative in Indonesia found demand for national budget information from civil society and research organisations, though the level of data use was not yet high (Srimarga, 2014).
  • The BudgIT initiative in Nigeria makes budget data simpler and more accessible for citizens, enabling them to demand accountability from public officials (Mejabi et al., 2014).
  • An initiative by the Ministry of Local Government in the Philippines required local government to open up financial and procurement information (Cañares et al., 2014).

Finally, open data is also situated within narratives of innovation and economic growth, providing a potential rationale for the adoption of reforms. Of the 20+ government leaders supported by the Open Data Institute to implement reforms in their country, a majority stated that the rationale for undertaking these reforms was to promote the use of data to build new services or intellectual capital and create high-value jobs.

However, little empirical research has examined the assumption made in many open data programmes that initiatives motivated by objectives other than accountability lead to the publication of datasets that are also valuable for accountability processes.