3 takeaways on transparency, accountability and open data

Panelists at the Open Government Partnership Summit in London. Transparency and accountability are touted as the "vaccine" to rid of development challenges in the developing world. Photo by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY-ND

Transparency, accountability and open data make great buzzwords — but how can these terms be effectively applied to strengthen outcomes within development policy and practice?

During the discussions at last month’s Open Government Partnership summit in London, transparency was touted as the vaccine to cure a dauntingly wide range of challenges in the developing world. Civil society leaders, government representatives and donor agencies met to debate how to make open government deliver on its promise. The need to engage all stakeholders, ensure political ownership of transparency projects at senior levels and improve the quality of open data were all common themes.

Yet for all the talk of the new future for development to be ushered in by open data, there seemed to be less discussion about the lack of meaningful data on the most marginalized in society — people without access to essential services like education, health or sanitation.

“What we’re seeing less progress on is the answer to the question of open data but for what,” Overseas Development Institute research fellow Leni Wild told Devex.

Ben Taylor of Twaweza, a Tanzanian CSO, warned about how in the vast majority of situations open government initiatives may struggle to come up with a win-win situation in which everyone benefits.

“All transparency and accountability work is about power and about politics and we need to remember that,” he said.

Here are our three main takeaways from the OGP summit in London:

1. Creating a movement.

There was common acceptance that technology amplifies the capacities for change.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted how, as events in Tahrir Square and across the globe illustrate, the pace at which things move is different from ever before.

“The simple reality is that in a democracy, in particular with the vibrancy of the social media today, you really have to be open. It seems to me we’re seeing a new accountability,” said Kerry.

Yet new tools and new platforms in themselves are not enough to deliver on the open government promise. John Adams, head of IT and innovation at the U.K. Department for International Development, asked: “If you publish data and no one uses it, what’s the point?” The latest attempt by DfID to address this challenge is its newly launched Development Tracker open data platform, which allows users to track flows of British aid.

Speakers agreed that the greatest difficulty in delivering change through accountability and transparency projects is building a community that can engage with the data or be inspired to create applications and tools that can help shape understanding on how the data translates into development outcomes.

The African Media Initiative’s Justin Arenstein suggested that devising ways to make data meaningful to users was one way to overcome the engagement hurdle.

“If you use that data so that ordinary citizens can understand how it affects their pocket or how it impacts their inability to access clean water or health care they will start to do something about it, [as] opposed to it just being a lobbyist-driven campaign,” said Arenstein.

2. Opportunity in post-2015.

Regardless of the sector or strategy under discussion, a recurrent theme was that the post-2015 agenda offers a unique opportunity for the international community to formally state its commitment to transparency as a development goal.

British Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the importance of coupling arguments about transparency and the rule of law with the more familiar issues relating to aid and development.

“As the Millennium Development Goals come to be replaced, I believe that open government must be at the heart of our efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Things like health, education and nutrition are absolutely vital but so is open government.”

Furthermore, the changing global environment already indicates that a number of countries will reduce their dependence on external assistance. Hence what matters in these instances is how domestic resources are allocated.

The open government agenda also matters for post-2015 because it makes the agenda much more effective, according to Twaweza’s Rakesh Rajani. Developing countries whose growing economies have pushed them into middle-income status stand to benefit from a commitment to transparency and accountability.

“The real issue is how we put our own resources to much more effective and better use. A lot will depend on whether we set up a regime that will manage these resources in the interest of the people; to turn an oil curse into an oil blessing,” Rajani said.

There are already signs that aspirations toward openness are shaping results on the ground. While Ghana is still coming to terms with its newfound status as an oil-producing nation, its government is visibly trying to improve on anti-corruption, as well as for revenue transparency and beneficial ownership to be built into the national planning process.

“Data collection on resources sent to mining communities is key as the information empowers citizens to challenge abuse of resources sent to their communities,” noted Yaw Effah Baafi, Ghanian deputy minister for land and natural resources.

3. Room for improvement.

Accountability, increasing transparency and fighting corruption are important reasons why open data matters, but problem-solving is equally important.

But the challenge for the open data movement is how to successfully make the shift from the first phase — when the goal was simply to encourage governments and agencies to get anything out — to translating data into real outcomes in specific sectors.

“Extremely important in order to make the case for open data, how best to convince government and citizens, is to have quantifiable evidence of what works or stories of what’s working,” said Beth Noveck, founder and director of GovLab.

While there was a unified call from civil society organizations and open data innovators for more governments to release information in open formats (fewer PDFs and more XML please), the much harder battle to be fought was over the comparability and interoperability of data.

Wild explained that while the post-2015 agenda is an opportunity to ensure that the most marginalized communities are not left behind in reality, despite the promises of open data, meaningful information about these people’s lives remains glaringly absent.

“What we’re seeing less progress on is the answer to the question of open data — for what?”

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About the author

  • Zoe Smith

    Zoe Smith is a Devex correspondent based in London, where she works as a journalist and communications consultant. Over more than 15 years, Zoe has written for publications including New Internationalist, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. She established Full Fact, a U.K. nonprofit, in 2010 and continues to provide strategic digital communications advice to the nonprofit sector. Zoe holds a master’s of science in violence, conflict and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies.