Costing Open Government Reforms: What About the Politics?

1 Comment

Alan Hudson, Executive Director

November 9, 2017

Next week at the Open Gov Hub, we will be hosting a discussion about the pioneering work that colleagues at Results for Development have been doing to develop a framework for estimating the cost of open government reforms. You can sign up for the event here and see the report – “Priceless?” – here.

We’re looking forward to hearing from the authors of the report, Praneetha Vissapragada and Naomi Joswiak. The creative minds behind the Open Gov Hub – Nathaniel Heller, also of Results for Development, and Jean-Louis Sarbib of Development Gateway – will join Praneetha, Naomi and I to discuss the value and limits of the approach to costing open government reforms that the report sets out.

This is a piece of work that we’ve followed closely as it emerged from the Research Consortium on the Impact of Open Government, with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. (Here is what we had to say a year ago).

  • Enthusiasm, because we agree (see “The value of open governance”) that the opengov agenda needs to move beyond rehearsing normative arguments for openness and pay additional attention to the costs, benefits, and pathways to impact, of more open processes of government. Paying attention to costs is in some ways the low-hanging fruit, but it is an important part of the mix.
  • Skepticism, because estimating the costs of supporting reforms that are political in nature, and generating cost estimates that are transferrable across different political contexts, is a major challenge and one which the Results for Development work does not at this stage – and notwithstanding the helpful caveat about context and variation on page 6 of the report –  squarely address.

There is no doubt that information about costs – and still more, impacts and pathways to those impacts – can be helpful inputs into decisions about whether and how to invest in opening government. There are however, some significant challenges in translating costings across contexts for investments that deal with issues such as governance that are, at their heart, political issues whose dynamics may vary greatly by context. Conducting lots of costings exercises – something which Results for Development are hoping to see happen – will provide additional data points, but more data points alone will not address the challenge of ensuring that the data can usefully inform investment decisions in other contexts.

We’ll have more to say on Tuesday, but as a sneak preview it seems to us that the sort of approach that Martin Williams of the Blavatnik School of Government sets out for considering whether a policy can translate across contexts, might also be useful in considering the extent to which costings estimates make sense across contexts (see here for more on policy adaptation, and, relatedly this excellent paper on “the generalizability puzzle” by Mary Ann Bates and Rachel Glennerster). That is, to consider the extent to which the key assumptions made in the costings estimates, and in the underlying investments that have been made in one place, are likely to hold in another place where a similar approach is being considered.

We look forward to being part of the conversation about how investment decisions being made in one place can be informed by estimates of the costs of investments elsewhere. And to broadening the discussion to consider how efforts to measure the impacts of investments in governance and transparency – efforts such as those planned as part of the Brookings/Results for Development/Natural Resource Governance Institute collaboration on leveraging transparency to reduce corruption – can take account of the fact that the impact of investments in governance reform is, because of the political nature of governance reform, highly dependent on context.

Come join us as we grapple collaboratively with these important challenges, Tuesday 14th November, at 11am, at the Open Gov Hub – sign up here!

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

One comment on “Costing Open Government Reforms: What About the Politics?”

  • ***This comment comes in from our Medium post from user Maya Forstater ( and is copied in its entirety here***

    Hi Alan,
    I share your enthusiasm (for paying more attention to the costs, benefits and impact pathways of transparency and open governance initiatives), and your scepticism (that the detailed, direct costings are the most interesting place to look).

    The direct, administrative costs of open gov initiatives I would have thought will always be fairly small (compared to building a bridge, say) and will tend to come down with technology — but these direct costs are not necessarily the most important driver, or barrier to the impact of open governance initiatives.

    It may be more helpful to think about indirect costs & losses on one hand and the gains on the other, from shifting any particular area of deliberation and decision making out of relative privacy into greater transparency. On whom do these costs and benefits fall, and are they enough to mobilise people either for or against the initiative? What are the incentives for the actors involved to act differently and how — officials, politicians, regulators, journalists, private contractors, competitors, citizens? As you highlight: politics.

    And then I think the really important question is whether and how the costs/benefits of transparency/open governance initiatives can be non zero-sum — do they simply result in decision making being weighted in a way that transfers resources from one group to another? (which can be important, but is limited) or can they support a change in the effectiveness of organisations, and networks in solving problems and creating wealth? Perhaps this last set of questions is too difficult to answer up front(certainly it does not fit into the kind of accounting framework suggested by the costing initiative) — but when we look back on the invention of movable type, or the internet, or the secret ballot, or the joint-stock company or any other ‘social technology’ which changed the world understanding the detailed breakdown of initial set-up costs seem less significant than tracing the pathways of change that they set off.

    ***To view this post on medium please see***


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Related blog posts