Open data and transparency as fields of practice largely share a theory of change when it comes to their assumed impact on accountability. The transparency literature elaborates this relationship most clearly. Analysts acknowledge that “transparency is necessary but far from sufficient to produce accountability” (Fox, 2007). Rather, transparency is only “one quarter” of the “minimal chain of events” leading to accountability (Peixoto, 2013):

  1. Governmental information is disclosed.
  2. The disclosed information reaches its intended public.
  3. Members of the public can process the disclosed information and react to it.
  4. Public officials respond to the public’s reaction or are sanctioned by the public through institutional means.

There are limits to information disclosure in this chain. The first relates to opaque transparency, defined as the release of information that is not useful, usable or reliable. This does not lead to answerability or the ability to generate insights and demand a response as a result.  The second relates to the fact that achieving hard accountability, meaning sanctions and consequences, requires a functioning governing regime and civil society with the capacity to encourage public accountability institutions to do their job (Fox, 2007).

An alternative interpretation of the chain of events leading to accountability is outlined in literature on social accountability. This chain is summarised by Kosack and Fung (2014):

  1. Service users are provided with information.
  2. Service users act on that information by, for example, changing their service provider or engaging in some modified behaviour.
  3. Providers see these actions as consequential.
  4. Providers respond constructively.

The 2004 World Development Report (World Bank, 2003) describes two pathways through this chain to accountability: a ‘short route’, where service users engage with the provider directly, by, for example, changing supplier, and a ‘long route’, where they use their political power, through voting or advocacy, to pressure leaders for improved services.

In a study of empirically evaluated experiments in transparency and accountability, Kosack and Fung (2014) identify where and when social accountability initiatives demonstrated improved service delivery. They found that interventions were successful where either: 1) citizens had options between services; or 2) citizens had no options, but public officials were willing to act on their behalf. Mixed results arose where providers faced little competition and were not responsive to pressure.

For open data and transparency initiatives to lead to accountability, therefore, the following conditions are needed:

  1. The right information is published in the right way at the right time. This requires an understanding of the politics of data publication.
  2. Societal actors are able to find, access and use this data. Enabling actors to find and use information, and to share ideas generated or use them to engage with services, requires an accountability ecosystem that includes equipped and empowered intermediaries.
  3. There is space to generate and share insights, and demand a response.
  4. Functioning response systems are in place, to impose sanctions or introduce other changes; OR citizens have sufficient choice or support from public officials.

The relationship between information asymmetries and accountability is complex. Barriers can prevent poorer, marginalised or less powerful communities from securing accountability. Meanwhile some have argued that programmes designed to increase information flows can in fact have negative impacts on inequality, technology access and literacy, pose risks to privacy, or lead to the misuse of data for the exploitation of individuals and markets.