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With great responsibility comes… no power? Open data in local government

Blog | October 7, 2016 | Carol Morgan

At the International Open Data Conference this year, the theme is 'Global goals, local impact’ – embracing local government and community perspectives on the national and international open data commitments made over the last few years.

We know that there is a divide between how local and national levels perceive open data. We know that data gathering and analysis is simply not a reality for many under-resourced local government departments. But most of all, we know we must go back to the key question of motivation -  ‘how do we make open data actually useful for local government?’


Data usefulness: if I can't move out the way, does it help me to know the piano is about to fall on my head?

For local government units, the limitations of what they can do with data is a major reason they don’t engage with it.

Imagine you're the Under-Secretary for Education in Greater Ghazal Local Government Unit. Your boss has asked you to coordinate the department's quarterly reports on how many children attend school in the district. He will pass this on to the national Ministry.

In most cases we heard at day 1 of IODC this is the end of the story.

  • There's no feedback on how things might change as a result of the data you're collecting
  • There's no clear benefit for you, your boss or your department in reporting
  • There is, however, a danger that if the data shows you things are going wrong, you might be held accountable for fixing (or not fixing) them
  • And, unfortunately, you don't have the money or authority to change what’s happening.

So why would you collect data, let alone make it open?

 

Fortunately, the IODC is full of data-realists...

From local NGOs to the US Department of Treasury there is a health dose of skepticism towards anyone touting data as a ‘silver bullet’. There is also an overwhelming recognition that open data is a tool to support people already interested in making change – and that we must target it realistically at where data collection is feasible, and where local government can see the benefit of acting on it to address local needs.

Partnerships - for collecting, using and communicating data - are high on the agenda here. Despite being poorly resourced, it is possible for local government not only to get good data, but also to use it effectively.

In Kitui County, Kenya, the local education department is working with NGO Caritas to support communities to report on teacher absenteeism - saving the education department time and money attempting to send staff to monitor schools across this vast county. SMS replaces smartphones in areas where electricity is scarce, data is aggregated on basic spreadsheets and the results are discussed at local community meetings. There are good examples from South Africa, where the commercial ratings site Yowzit is partnering with municipalities to provide public rating of government health services; and from Indonesia, where local governments are partnering with Indonesian Corruption Watch to help government understand what their newly-published procurement data means.

Partners are out there. However, while national governments know they can call on organisations like the Open Government Partnership to guide them, local government departments often don't - and perhaps that in itself is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Repurposing data is also a big topic of discussion - and useful for local governments who are struggling with the idea they might need to spend a lot of money on new surveys: From David Lebryk at the U.S. Department of Treasury to Bibhusan Bista, CEO of Young Innovations in Nepal, there is strong support at IODC for working with what already exists - adapting and adding to exist systems and reusing the data that's already being collected.

One of the key problems here is knowing what already exists, what data is there already and what is being collected in the near future – especially if you are in a local office, far from where central data is held. In one of Making All Voices Count’s recent webinars with local organisations, we asked people how they researched issues or other programmes working on the same issues as them. The answer was 100% ‘google it’. There is a gap here, and one we’re not yet filling.

Building relationships between government and citizens:  One thing that everyone agreed on was that governments across the world are suffering from a crisis of trust - trust between citizens and their representatives in government, as well as trust between government departments and levels. Governments need the support of those who elect them, and establishing trust is one of the key benefits of being more open and transparent.

But, there is a flip side that governments are understandably wary of - opening up data so the public can see government performance, warts and all, is risky for anyone who needs public votes. We need to get better at demonstrating how the benefits outweigh the risks and work harder to make sure that changes become systemic and not reliant on one person.

As discussions continue today, we will keep going back to this local level perspective, dragging our often-times intangible goals back to the question I heard repeated no less than four times yesterday 'what does it mean for my grandmother?'

Whether in a city or a remote rural district, it is at this local, personal level where we need to partner on data, to repurpose it, and to see open data make a difference - for government actors, for grandmothers, and for communities.


About the author

Carol Morgan is Head of Communications at Making All Voices Count
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