Contextual success factors for open data and transparency programmes

A major study of transparency and accountability initiatives’ impact highlights the importance of the context in which they take place (Gaventa & McGee, 2013). The authors find the following explanatory variables.

Supply-side success factors:

  • The level of democratisation affects success, with little evidence of impact in non-democracies, but some in emerging democracies and fragile states.
  • A political environment that favours a balanced supply- and demand-side approach to accountability is critical to success.
  • The broader political economy, prevailing legal framework and incentive structure within which even committed actors and leaders operate matter.

Demand-side success factors:

  • Citizens must have the capability to process, analyse and use new information.
  • Initiatives have more success when linked to other mobilisation strategies, including those that evoke collective action like electoral pressure or protests.
  • Citizens are more likely to engage in monitoring when they are also engaged in formulating policies.

These findings broadly align with those from research by New York University’s GovLab (Young & Verhulst, 2016). This looked across 19 case studies of open data programmes around the world and identified four conditions that enhanced their impact:

  • inclusion of intermediaries and development of partnerships
  • development of open data as public infrastructure
  • clear policies and political will
  • a clear target or problem definition

Effective projects studied by GovLab built partnerships across sectors and occasionally across borders. Two forms of collaboration were found to be particularly important: partnerships with civil society groups, for mobilising and educating citizens, and partnerships with the media, for analysing and finding meaning in raw open data. The most recent annual report from the International Budget Partnership (2015) also highlights the need for intermediaries to be included in programming, finding that problems of transparency are shifting from availability of information to opportunities for participation. A DFID programme in Tanzania (the Twaweza project) is an example of this; it gives funding both to support government implementation (via the World Bank) and to a local civil society organisation to make use of information released.

GovLab found that effective projects grew out of broad and ongoing commitments that formed what could be called an “open data public infrastructure”: technical and organisational processes that enable the regular release of potentially impactful data to the public, in some cases taking the form of an “open by default” system of government data generation and release.  Kenya’s Open Duka initiative, for example, is improving the country’s internal data capacity, which was deemed part of the problem with achieving impact (Young & Verhulst, 2016). Brazil’s Open Budget Transparency Portal has launched a culture-building campaign of training to support use of its open data (Graft et al., 2016b).

A further determinant of success, according to GovLab’s findings, was the existence of clear policies on open data, including well-defined performance metrics – a reminder that technology does not exist in a vacuum. High-level political buy-in is critical to ensure there are consequences for not following rules, and to combat vested interests. These findings align with the Open Data Institute’s findings from its programme supporting governments in developing countries to implement national initiatives. This found widespread uncertainty regarding who ‘owns’ data, how to pay for it and how to collect and share it internally. It concludes that strong open data policies can bring clarity and greater confidence around data publication and use, internally and externally (Smith & Carolan, 2016).

As part of this broader emphasis on infrastructure, it is important to ensure that programmes make data, or at least insights from data, available to those without access to technology. A study of the impact of open data on poverty eradication in East Africa found that offline information for citizens is important, and should not be excluded from the open data agenda (Lwanga-Ntale et al., 2014).

Finally, the GovLab team found that the most successful open data projects identify existing needs and provide new solutions or efficiencies to address them. Singapore’s Dengue Fever Cluster Map is one example that had a clear, tangible benefit: seeking to limit an illness that was widely recognised as a problem. This idea is also reflected in a GODAN discussion paper, which brings together case studies of impact and highlights the need for projects to start with problems rather than data.