New IDS Bulletin debunks myths around open data and open governance

25 January 2016

Hot on the heels of the World Development Report 2016, which argues that digital technologies have fallen short of their potential to improve growth, opportunities and service delivery for everyone everywhere, the latest IDS Bulletin 'Opening Governance', sounds a warning to digital optimists who believe that opening data will lead to improved governance and accountability.

An umbrella (the emblem of the movement) statue/monument erected near Hong Kong Government Offices in Admiralty, created to honour the 'Umbrella Revolution'. The 'Occupy Central' (or 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace') movement in Hong Kong has been organising events of civil disobedience, such as sit-ins on busy roads, to protest against the Chinese government's electoral policy for Hong Kong. The activist's main demand is that elections for the post of Chief Executive, due in 2017, be open to all candidates. However, the Beijing authorities have insisted that the candidates in the election will only be drawn from a pre-approved list. Credit: C. Stowers - Panos

Opening Governance, published today, presents a rich collection of articles which include case studies from Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania, analyses of gender inequity and, a detailed review and conceptual advances on how/if ICT platforms can improve public service delivery.

In the context of transparency, accountability and empowerment, digital technologies can offer new opportunities for citizens to interrogate government data and information and to mobilise to demand accountability. They can enhance the impact of opening governance processes and relationships, where something is already taking place, i.e. there is existing political will to become more open to citizens. However, they cannot, in themselvs, offer the solution to the problems of contemporary democracies.

In fact, some of the contributing authors to Opening Governance find that, at best, digital technologies deployed to improve accountability and transparency have proven well-intentioned but ineffective, for example because chosen tools were not appropriate for the intended users.

At worst, the financial and technological capacities of the state to surveil and persecute citizens is often far greater than those of citizens' own attempts to use technology to hold it to account. 

Conflation of terms such as open data, open government or opening governance creates a major stumbling block to achieving meaningful impact

Conceptual ambiguity may at first appear to be a pedant’s quibble over semantics. However, a confluence of terms such as open government data, which focus on government products, with open governance, which focus on government processes will have a major impact on how a programme or intervention will be designed, who will be involved and what impacts it should be trying to achieve.

Euphemism and poorly articulated theories of change can be counter-productive. In their introduction, editors Duncan Edwards and Rosie McGee provide an overview of existing research, citing Avila et al "technology for transparency and accountability efforts must be careful to avoid exacerbating societal inequalities by disproportionately empowering elites".

Technological solutions looking for a problem to solve?

Throughout the Issue, authors remind us that problems of citizen empowerment and government (or other institutional) accountability should be viewed as political, institutional or cultural problems, and not treated simply as a technological or informational one.

Edwards and McGee call on development practitioners to remain vigilant around technological hype and look for evidence while urging donors to critically consider the disjuncture between the funding modalities they favour, and what we now know about what works.

First issue of the new open access IDS Bulletin

Fittingly, Opening Governance is the first issue of the IDS Bulletin’s new open access format. All articles are free to read online or download, and are licensed under Creative Commons. They have been published on a new, dedicated and responsive website, which means articles can also be read on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.   

Contributing authors to Opening Governance come from a wide range of disciplinary and experiential backgrounds, providing unique insights into problems experienced in the field as well as views on the latest theory and scholarship. It was produced under the Making All Voices Count programme, a major international initiative working on promoting transparency, fighting corruption, empowering citizens, and harnesssing the power of new technologies to make government more effective and accountable.

Image credit: C. Stowers - Panos