Points of View 24th July 2012

How open is the UK Open Government strategy? | Andrew Clarke, Publish What You Fund

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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.

Andrew Clarke, Advocacy Manager at Publish What You Fund

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