“To what extent and for what reasons is the use of open government data associated with higher levels of accountability and improved service delivery in developing countries?”
—Michael Jelenic, 2019, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper
While open data is an important element of our work at Global Integrity, we do not consider ourselves “open data” experts.
We’ve done quite a bit in terms of exploring how data can make a difference, in our “Follow the Money” work in Mexico, our engagement with other organizations working on fiscal governance who are keen to leverage the potential of open data, and our work with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative on data for accountability in Nigeria and Colombia.
Talking about the evolution of the open data agenda at the 2018 International Open Data Conference.
As part of the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence (GI-ACE) programme, we are supporting the Curbing Corruption in Procurement project, which utilizes open data as a starting point to analyze corruption risks in aid spending. We are also regular participants in the International Open Data Conference and my colleagues Jorge Florez and Johannes Tonn wrote the chapter on open data for accountability and anti-corruption in the recently published State of Open Data Report.
And, we are collaborating with the Open Data Charter, the Latin American Open Data Initiative (ILDA), and the International Development Research Centre on a project funded through the World Bank-hosted Open Government Partnership Trust Fund that aims to support the use of open data to address corruption.
With all that being said, “open data” is not our focus. Instead, we focus on supporting our partners in countries and communities around the world as they try to tackle challenges related to corruption and the use of public resources.
We do this by helping our partners better understand and address those challenges in ways that fit with the complexities of the local context. Support for the use of data, including open data, is an important element of our overall approach, which also includes help with problem mapping and support for strategy and learning. However, our focus is always on the particular problems our partners are facing and the configurations of power and incentives that hold those problems in place.
So, we were delighted to see Michael Jelenic’s recent paper, “From theory to practice: Open government data, accountability and service delivery.” Looking at two different sectors – health and education – the paper addresses a clear question: To what extent and for what reasons is the use of open government data associated with higher levels of accountability and improved service delivery in developing countries?
At the heart of the paper is a deep dive into whether the ways in which a particular sector is structured – “how decisions are made, how services are rendered, and how clients consume those services” (Jelenic 2019, p. 30) – have a bearing on to what extent and why open government data can support systems change that leads to better development outcomes. This helps to move discussions about the value of open data beyond what Michael rightly refers to as a “murky theory of change” around open data, accountability, and service delivery.
This is an approach with strong echoes of the ground-breaking work of Richard Batley and Claire Mcloughlin on “The politics of public services: A service characteristics approach”. Indeed, as Michael acknowledges and is clear from his extensive references and bibliography, the broader idea of focusing on governance and corruption in sectors is not especially novel. (See Derick Brinkerhoff and Anna Maria Wetterberg’s recent piece, “Governance and sector outcomes” and Mark Pyman’s “Curbing Corruption” initiative, for example.)
Nevertheless, Michael’s paper is an important step forward for the open data agenda, moving toward an approach that starts with sectoral challenges, then proceeds to a political economy analysis of the system of actors and relationships in a particular sector, and then, and only then, considers whether and how open data might make a difference in that sector. I strongly recommend that you dig into the paper to see how this analytical framework is put to work to generate important insights about the potential of open government data in the health and education sectors.1
This is the direction in which the open data agenda – and the transparency agenda more broadly – is heading. And that’s a good thing. The future may be open, as the International Open Data Conference puts it, but there’s more chance of it being open, and much more value in it being open, if openness helps to address problems that people care about.
1 A similar argument about whether and how social accountability can make a difference in the education sector is made by Florencia Guerzovich, Maria Poli, and Emilie Fokkelman.