The dynamics of governing Open Data

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Is the recent surge in open data efforts really allowing us to truly see through the fog and hold elected officials accountable? (photo: Flickr/Raffee)

In the wake of the infamous scandal that rocked the City of Bell a few years ago, the California open government movement has been on the fast track.

California Forward has covered efforts to increase transparency in cities around the state, from Palo Alto to Santa Ana. But not all open data initiatives are created equal; the publication of data alone does not inherently make it useful or beneficial to either the public or the agency.

The public seeks transparency not for the sake of transparency, but as a tool to hold their leaders accountable to results. Conversely, governments may pursue openness as a means to increase efficiency by promoting inclusion and civic participation, which in turn fosters innovation. Citizens want to know their tax dollars are being spent wisely and officials want to restore the public’s faith in government.

But are these objectives being factored into the development of open data initiatives?

As public agencies are being pushed to release more data, a report from the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) looks at what governments should consider before implementing transparency initiatives to ensure efforts have a valuable impact on good governance and public utility.

“If public leaders want to pursue opening government, particularly through the use of new technologies and information-driven activities, they need a good understanding of how the process works,” said senior program associate at CTG and lead author of the report, Natalie Helbig, in a statement.

The report, The Dynamics of Opening Government Data, analyzes the value generated by open data by evaluating two open data initiatives: public access to restaurant health inspection data in New York City and street construction project information in Alberta, Canada.

Based on their analysis, the authors developed several best practices for public agencies interested in advancing transparency.

Although it may seem intuitive, the authors recommend governments release data that is relevant to both the public as well as agency performance. Public agencies collect an enormous amount of information, but faced with rising budgetary concerns, determining which data sets will get the most bang for the buck is not necessarily easy. 

In fact, according to CTG, the majority of open data initiatives aren’t successful; they aren’t used by residents and don’t improve governance.  Governments are advised to look for ‘quick wins’, data that is easy to publish and already in demand.

To identify which initiatives warrant the investment of time and effort, officials need to define the desired outcomes and thoughtfully evaluate how particular stakeholders will use and interact with different data ahead of time.

Data means different things to different people; without the proper context it may lie fallow. A lack of contextual information “may partially explain why the availability of so many open government data sets has not generated the uptake of use first envisioned,” the report states.

Additionally, governments ought to focus on sustainability. No, they aren’t referring to websites and platforms that can last forever but haven’t been updated since launched. Officials, the authors affirm, can ‘future-proof’ data by ensuring it is of interest to the public, of high quality, released in a timely fashion, and published in a user-friendly format.

Transparency is an ongoing commitment, not a onetime deal. The one time publication of information doesn’t deserve a round of applause, for that’s only the beginning. If not properly managed and updated, open data initiatives may end up eating up more resources than initially anticipated without ever achieving the desired results. And as states, cities, and districts are tightening their budget belts, every penny counts.

But the additional effort required to ensure an open data initiative benefits the public and improves governance should not discourage or excuse public agencies from letting the sunshine in. Transparency is a cornerstone of good government and that fosters accountability, may spur innovation, and is key to earning back the public’s trust. A little elbow grease never hurt anybody.


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg