On the 5th December 2012, the UK Government – in its role as co-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – organised a Peer Exchange meeting for representatives of participating countries. The opening panel saw government and civil society representatives from Indonesia (the other co-chair of OGP), Mexico, Tanzania and the UK share their stories about the process of developing National Action Plans.
Providing a UK perspective, I explained that while the original National Action Plan and the consultation process that led up to it was somewhat underwhelming, in recent months there had been a highly collaborative, fruitful and open process of engagement between government and civil society. The process, as I described, has centred on the production and discussion of the UK co-chair’s vision for the OGP as a whole, UK civil society’s vision for OGP as a whole, and – most recently – working together, through weekly meetings, to co-create a revised National Action Plan.
To improve the dialogue between government and civil society required that both “sides” play their part, working to identify shared goals, communicating clearly to develop the trust that is needed to make the relationship work and setting out shared principles of open policy-making. The UK’s OGP vision has, we believe, improved as a result of dialogue with civil society. And the National Action Plan – moving beyond open data, acknowledging that participation brings democratic dividends as well as prosperity payoffs, and paying attention to the global as well as national dimensions of open government – has certainly moved in the right direction. We trust that our Government counterparts would agree?
The country context makes a difference to how the Open Government Partnership plays out. In Mexico, the change of government poses challenges and provides opportunities for the evolution of open government. In Indonesia, the emphasis on open data seen in the US and UK is less pronounced – other issues are higher priority. And in Tanzania, with severe and pressing human development needs, there is a clear and welcome focus on what open government can deliver in terms of specific sectors – health, education and water. As President Kikwete put it at the OGP Plenary in Brasilia, in Tanzania, open government is about a woman being able to give birth safely (Video, after 39 minutes, 30 seconds; Text).
For the UK, a key feature of the context is the fact that the UK is not only co-chair of OGP in 2013, but also has the Presidency of the G8 and has its Prime Minister co-chairing the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Framework, along with fellow open government leaders, President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, and President Sirleaf of Liberia. We at ONE, with a focus on poverty in Africa, are working hard to ensure that a golden thread of transparency, participation and accountability is woven through each of these political opportunities, with a focus always on how the principles of open government can help to address specific challenges that people face in accessing the services that they need. We look forward to working with other members of the UK Civil Society Network on OGP, the UK Government and others to make OGP a success in the UK and globally, in 2013 and beyond.
You’d be forgiven for not noticing the release of an Open Data Strategy by the Department for International Development (DFID) at the end of June. This remarkable yet unflashy document spells out the department’s intentions for ramping up their already considerable transparency programme to increase accountability, efficiency and traceability of its work.
All UK Government departments produced an open data strategy in June – alongside the Cabinet Office’s Open Data White Paper – pledging themselves to big releases of datasets and innovative open data approaches over the next two years. Although they followed a template, the departments’ strategies vary dramatically in scope, detail and ambition. This reflects how far different parts of government have progressed and the demands made on them to open up their information, decision-making and systems. For example, the FCO is open about the challenges to changing the mindsets of their staff:
We accept that the government’s open data and transparency agenda fundamentally changes the way in which we consider the data we hold – it is no longer ‘our data’ but should be viewed as ‘public data’. Applying the government’s open data principles means a cultural shift for the organisation…
While this is refreshingly honest, it is disappointing that the department has taken a piecemeal and passive approach to open data, promising to release only two pockets of data – an increased dataset on British Behaviour Abroad and consular satisfaction data – over the next two years.
This is in stark contrast to the UK’s other international facing department, DFID, which can boast genuine global leadership in aid transparency and the openness of its corporate information. Later this year, DFID will launch a new version of its aid information platform, using data in the IATI XML format – a flexible mark-up language that complies with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).
Producing information in this format allows easy comparison with other international donors, such as the World Bank, the European Commission and the Netherlands. It also allows a multitude of uses of that information – from country level data-crunching to spot over-lap of efforts, to diving into the details of projects to find exactly what aid agencies are doing on the ground, who they are doing with and what methods they are employing.
DFID’s aid information platform will not only contain its own direct activities but those of all its partners, from big multilateral banks like the Asian Development Bank, to private sector contractors delivering projects and evaluations in the field. This is driven by a desire to increase the “traceability” of aid down (and up) the delivery chain, so that public funds can be accounted for at every level and realistic assessment can be made of their results and impact. UK NGOs have already made great strides in this direction by beginning to publish their information to the same international standard (IATI). It is now the turn of private sector partners to follow suit.
DFID isn’t just pursuing a PR exercise to defend their activities. What is perhaps most radical in this document is the way openness is connected to improving quality. It’s an increasingly held truism in public service that the more scrutiny officials feel they are receiving, the more attention they put into accuracy. DFID is institutionalising this in two ways: by helping staff to learn from mistakes with checklists and regular “lessons learned” on data entry; and by encouraging some healthy competition between divisions with detailed league tables on data quality performance.
What this strategy demonstrates is that real progress on transparency is being made in areas of the UK Government but that it requires a step-change in bureaucratic mindsets. The Foreign Office is, with a little luck and some internal transparency champions, making that first step. Once organisations realise that proactive publication of information is not only the right thing to do but will help them be more effective, they can start opening up their data and their policy-making processes.
On the world stage, the UK has seized the transparency mantle with relish, urging its global partners to adopt a common standard for publishing aid information and to share best practice in open data under the Open Government Partnership (OGP). As part of its own commitments under OGP, the Government has pledged to make all departments spending aid (including FCO, MOD and DECC) publish their aid information to the IATI open data standard. However, none except DFID even mention this in their strategies.
Next February, the UK will host over 50 countries as co-chair of OGP. Already criticised for neglecting “open governance” approaches and corporate transparency in its OGP plan, the UK needs to deliver on its sizeable open data promises. If David Cameron is serious about the drive for transparency, other departments beyond DFID will need to open up and learn to share.
Hillary Clinton spoke about the United States’ commitment to aid transparency at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Brazil this week.
While we applaud that commitment, we are clear that is only the first step. Now, the issue of how and when the information is published becomes critical – and that means releasing information in a format is useful to policy makers, recipient countries and the public.
Aid has the power to radically transform lives, but its potential is not being fully realised because we do not know enough about how it is spent. The U.S. administration understands this, and agrees that that transparency is essential if aid is to ever truly be effective.
In her speech, Clinton stressed how the U.S. has joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the common standard for publishing aid information, along with over 40 donor and recipient governments.
We welcome this move as a step in the right direction. We know this information on aid exists somewhere, in some format, but it is simply not properly collected across the over 25 agencies spending foreign assistance. By joining the IATI, it will be possible to start answer the question of how and where U.S. assistance is being spent.
But that is not enough.
As the U.S. begins the process of releasing its data, it needs to ensure that its decisions pave the way for information that is timely, comparable and useful. Publishing information following these principles will greatly help the U.S. make better decisions about how it spends it resources
For agencies working on the ground in Afghanistan, Haiti or Liberia, knowing where money has been spent after the fact does not help much – they need to know where money is going right now.
Without timely, as well as comprehensive and comparable information, we aren’t getting the most out of those precious aid resources. Various agencies and donors will be duplicating effort, and wasting time and money. In the worst cases, agencies even risk undermining each other’s work.
The U.S. needs to make some clear decisions. Discussions on how to implement the IATI are happening right now between a number of different powerful actors, including the White House, USAID and the State Department, which makes this a crucial time to ensure the right decision is made.
Publishing to the right standard should now be the priority. The U.S. can and should lead on aid transparency allowing recipient countries to see where tax payers’ money is going. This publication would allow us, for the first time, to compare spending across donors.
We all want more transparent, effective and accountable governments – with institutions that empower citizens and are responsive to their aspirations. But this takes that crucial combination of political and technical leadership.
In her speech in Brazil yesterday, Clinton said, ‘We now have a chance to set a new global standard for good governance and to strengthen a global ethos of transparency and accountability’.
We urge the U.S. administration sustain this ambition when deciding how to publish their own information.
Virtually all OGP countries score very badly for openness of company data, with several – including countries such as Spain, Greece and Brazil – effectively closed for the public, civil society and the wider world.
New report finds serious deficiencies in access to information about companies in countries signatories to the Open Government Partnership. The report by Opencorporates presented at the OGP meeting in Brazil looks at government sources such as business registers in forty countries. Its main findings are listed below:
OGP countries score badly for open access to company data, with an overall average of 21 (out of a possible 100 points), with several important countries (Spain, Italy, Greece, Brazil) scoring 0 points.
“Increasing Corporate Accountability” is one of the Open Government Partnership’s 5 Grand Challenges .
Accountability requires access to information, and in a complex corporate world that means access to it as machine-readable data, with a licence to reuse, remix, combine with other data.
The information on companies is collected for a statutory purpose, as companies are by deﬁnition artiﬁcial entities that have been created by the state for the wider beneﬁt of society, but is often restricted to only those who have the funds to buy the data, usually companies using it to enhance proprietary datasets, thus doubly undermining access.
The United Kingdom has made a public commitment to regularly publish the most basic information from its company register (i.e. name, company number, company type, registered address, status) as an openly licensed bulk download from July 2012. The report therefore rates the UK twice, once for the current situation, and once for that in July. The UK has also said that it is looking at publishing directors’ information as open data later in the year, but has as yet made no commitment to this, nor to statutory filings, shareholdings or to company accounts (which it is now collecting as data).
As the UK becomes co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, we hope it uses this as an opportunity to lead by example, extending its open data to directors, filings and shareholders, particularly given its important position in the financial and corporate world.