The Costs and Politics of Open Government Interventions

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By Alan Hudson, Executive Director, November 15th 2016

Nathaniel Heller, our former boss, who now leads on governance-related issues at Results for Development, recently published an important piece, in which he encouraged the open government movement to move beyond arguments that open government is the “right thing to do” and to pay more attention to the impacts, and costs, of open government interventions. Nathaniel’s piece has some similarities with a piece we put out on “the value of open governance”, earlier this year. So there’s much to agree with.

We agree that those of us keen to promote and support progress toward more open government need to spend more time on making the instrumental case for reform. We also agree that work to generate and share information about costings, and impacts, is much needed. But, as Nathaniel’s comments about fuzzy inputs, outputs and outcomes acknowledge, there are considerable challenges to doing this.

We see two fundamental challenges (which, along with the downplaying of local ownership, make us wary of the notion of governance “interventions”). A first challenge is the fact that an “intervention” that costs $2m in Bangladesh, might cost a whole lot more in Nigeria, or Texas, or Buenos Aires. A second is the fact that an intervention which moves the needle massively in one place, might make little difference in another where the context and political dynamics — and, in effect, the local costs of the intervention — are different.

As such, we’d be very interested to hear more about how the costings work being done by  Results for Development is: i) dealing with the fact that the bang per buck of support for governance reform is likely to vary significantly across contexts; and ii) generating information that open government champions in particular places can use as they work out how best to navigate and shape the political dynamics in the contexts where they are working.

Thanks to Nathaniel and the Results for Development team for continuing to push the conversation about open government, its costs and its impacts, and for grappling with the associated challenges! We look forward to learning along together.

Note: Nathaniel notes that the costings work is being done under the auspices of the Research Consortium on the Impact of Open Government. This is a consortium that we are a member of too. 

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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