Open Knowledge

Helping the government help itself

We've discussed that it's important for CSOs, journalists, and other groups to work together and it's likely that you won't bump up against too much resistance to this idea. But what about when you get pushback from the government even after you've built a strong coalition to advocate for better access to data? Well, one answer you can give them is "Government darling, you're only hurting yourself".

Whenever the word 'transparency' is mentioned, the first thought that usually springs to mind is a bright light being shone into dark corners of government offices, trying to expose the dark secrets of corrupt bureaucrats and inefficient expenditure. What is often overlooked is that governments also often stand to benefit from more transparent publishing practices. Not only does proactive disclosure help save on the time and cost associated with increased Freedom of Information requests, but other governments within the same nation can benefit from each other as well.

Connecting different levels of government

Money at the federal level is often transferred to local governments in the form of grants, direct payments or formula payments. When sub-national governments have better, more timely information on national budgeting priorities, it allows them to adjust their own budgets to account for cuts or increases in certain programs. Similarly, many local governments have small staffs and rely on revenue estimates and models at the federal level to estimate their own revenue.

This underscores the need for a consistent, standardized information sharing across governments, as it would allow them to share models, best practices, and software with each other, instead of custom building everything from scratch. Furthermore, it would allow for cross-checks on both the federal side and local side for data auditing purposes.

The next section highlights a couple of case studies for CSOs to use when trying to convince their government to publish better data.

Case study

Transparency to combat lag-times for Governments in British Columbia

When the province of British Columbia built a data portal (http://www.data.gov.bc.ca/), its motivations were primarily:

  • citizen engagement - they wanted citizens to better understand the workings of government
  • innovation - they wanted people to build applications and tools using the data
  • making handovers effective - a large number of the workforce were approaching retirement age, and those in charge wanted to make sure that they handed over the necessary information well in advance

Probably one of the less-expected impacts was seeing how civil servants themselves used the portal. In 2012 approximately one third of all the traffic originated from government computers. The technology enabled faster access to relevant data within the government departments, contributing to better collaboration on policies that required fiscal data. There was also about 20% increase in the number of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, showing that releasing a small amount of data fuelled wider interest in data.

The importance of constant access

It is somewhat terrifying to think that a lot of budgeting decisions could made almost entirely in the dark. As soon as one executive budget proposal is finalised and published, work often begins on producing the next one. Within governments, those who have to draw up the next year's plan need access (and quickly) to information, such as actual quarterly expenditures, in order to work out whether a government department is properly resourced from the outset, or is drastically under or over spending.

Case study

International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

Building on around 20 years of previous work, the first version of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard was launched in early 2011 and aid donors around the world started publishing to it. The IATI specification documents data about both aid donors and aid activities, enabling comparison and encouraging good practice in data management. The IATI standard also includes space to attach relevant documents and details of project results, to allow the standard to build context around the data and become an end-to-end solution, tracking projects from inception to execution.

The IATI standard has seen far greater uptake than any previous effort in terms of organisations electing to publish their data in a standard format. These successes are often attributed to the multi-stakeholder nature of the design process, including both policy makers and technical experts. From 2009 to 2010, IATI consulted with a wide range of stakeholders on the design of the technical standard, alongside a parallel process to secure donor support for publishing their aid information.

In the past it was common to respond to information shortages by building a new database. But by working with open data principles, IATI allows a more distributed solution - where information can flow between organisations in many different ways, not just into a central database.

Main user groups

  1. Parliamentarians in developing countries gain a better oversight of the aid resources available. Knowing where to allocate resources in their own budgeting processes is vital to ensure that money is spent in the best way. Sometimes, there is transparency-asymmetry between different parts of government. For example, a treasury may be very willing to open up the information it holds, but departments which benefit strongly from aid donations (e.g. departments of health) may be more reluctant to be transparent about aid revenues, as they will not want to 'lose out' from central government budgeting.
  2. Donors: Know where their money is going and whether it is being spent correctly.
  3. CSOs and private companies who monitor aid effectiveness

The benefits of this approach have already been demonstrated, with many CSOs and charities choosing to follow the IATI Standard, although it was developed primarily with governments in mind.

Donors publish aid information as a feed which can be read by many different applications, including those created by other donors, by the open data community, and - importantly - by software providers that are developing country financial systems. By providing aid information in a standard format, many different users can access the data in the way they need to - and developing countries can see the resources, which are supposed to be flowing to them.

Is there anything like this for spending and budgets?

At present, no. The way many governments report their financial data is a function of how their budget process works or how they use their accounting software. This may not even be consistent within a government, but vary by department and sub-department.

Could it be useful to create one? We suspect so. The IATI standard for the first time is enabling people to track the money across country boundaries, something which is almost impossible with other types of expenditure, but crucial for those whose job is oversight of government activities and accountability bodies, such as those who work to prevent international money laundering and corruption.