Published on October 31, 2013

“Harnessing Data to Drive Citizen Engagement”

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Involve's incoming director, taking over from 21st January 2017. Tim has led campaigns and advocacy on open government; advised national, devolved and local governments, civil society organisations and multilateral institutions; and researched and written on topics including public participation, open government, democratic reform, civil society advocacy and public administration.

This morning I spoke at the Open Government Partnership Summit in a panel session on “Harnessing Data to Drive Citizen Engagement”. Here’s a rough account of what I said (and intended to say) in my five minutes:

My interest in open data is specifically in its link to responsive and accountable institutions, and what’s needed to make that link a reality.

The overarching point I want to make is that open data is often seen within the specific frame of transparency. But I believe that if the potential benefits of open, accountable and democratic government are to be reaped, it must also be considered within a frame of participation.

We need to ask the question: how can & should open data fit with active citizenship, rather than how citizens’ participation should fit with open data? At least as much attention, therefore, needs to be paid to how and why citizens use data, as getting the data out, which is the focus of many countries working on this area at the moment.

This is certainly true in the UK where the Government is making important progress on releasing data. This is, of course, essential. But releasing data can only take us so far along the road to responsive & accountable government. The rest of the way requires a strong focus on participation & accountability mechanisms.

Tiago Peixoto from the World Bank talks about a minimum chain of events that data must go through in order for it to be open, which he calls the accountability mechanism:

  1. Governmental information is disclosed;
  2. The disclosed information reaches its intended public;
  3. Members of the public are able to process the disclosed information and react to it;
  4. Public officials respond to the public’s reaction or are sanctioned by the public through institutional means.

I won’t comment on the first level because there are people significantly more qualified than me on this panel and in the room to talk about this. But I will say a little on the other three:

The second event – that ‘The disclosed information reaches its intended public’ – acknowledges that simply publishing data is not an adequate means of ensuring that it reaches citizens. In order for open data to resonate with citizens and community groups, Involve’s research into how and why people participate suggests that it must be clearly applicable to an individual’s personal motivations.

The evidence in the UK, however, suggests that the public currently do not understand how open data applies to them or what they care about; research into public awareness of open data has found that awareness is low in part because open data is perceived as an abstract issue, with unclear benefits to everyday life.

Open data needs to become a readily accessible resource to which individuals and community groups automatically turn in order to support their participation. For this to happen, both Government and civil society need to demonstrate the benefits and efficacy of open data.

In order for open data to reach citizens it also needs to be available in the places they already participate and interact with government. “Engage where people are” has become a mantra for many public participation experts after numerous failed attempts at the Field of Dreams – “build it and they will come” – approach. Likewise, I think it needs to become a mantra for the open data movement.

The third event in the accountability mechanism – ‘Members of the public are able to process the disclosed information and react to it’ – emphasises the need for citizens to be able to interact with open data. Our research into how and why individuals participate identified the importance of an individual’s resources, including their skills, expertise and confidence; their social networks, both personal and professional; and the local groups and organisations in their communities to if and how they participate.

Government and civil society both need to consider what potential influence we have over these supporting conditions for active citizenship, in the context of open data. Part of this, I think, has to be identifying, supporting and increasing the trusted intermediaries who can work with citizens and civil society to leverage data, whether they be expert citizens, media, civil society or business.

Finally, the fourth event in the accountability mechanism – ‘Public officials respond to the public’s reaction or are sanctioned by the public through institutional means’ – emphasises that there must exist a system through which citizens can sanction, reward and/or collaborate with public officials based on their use of the data.

This requires both the linking of open data with existing engagement channels and exercises and the development of new mechanisms through which citizens can collaborate with and challenge decision makers.

The first two of these steps could be considered as the supply side of open data, and the latter two the demand side for open data. While I think the UK Government has a strong story to tell around its work on the supply side of open data, I think it can learn a lot from other countries on how it works on the demand side of the equation. I’ve been particularly taken by examples from countries such as Brazil, India and Indonesia of taking data offline to local communities, and supporting them to engage with it and use it to hold their governments to account.

So, my final point would be that one of the strengths I see in the OGP is its potential to break down the artificial barriers between a number of different open government mechanisms and communities. One of the places I think this is needed more than most is between open data and citizen engagement. So my hope is that these two communities will begin to work together much closer in the coming years to reap the benefits of the expertise from both.

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