Published on November 13, 2012

How will we know if open government is successful?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

I’ve been at DFID and Omidya’s OpenUp conference on transparency and open government. It was a star-studded affair, stimulating and full of insight. But….

The morning focused on transparency and open data, we heard from a strong panel about the power of initiatives like Ushahidi to use transparency and crowdsourcing to empower citizens. One of the speakers – Anne Jellema of the WWW Foundation – noted that technology is mostly used by white, literate men who’d use it anyway. But that this isn’t a problem, she said, because they are doing things to make government more responsive to citizens (I paraphrase, I wasn’t making notes). If you look at fantastic platforms like fixmystreet or ipaidabribe then this is true. But technology isn’t neutral, and is just as likely to be used by non-progressive forces against the interests of citizens at the bottom of the pile.

There wasn’t enough talk, for my taste, on issues of power; on how to ensure that the least powerful are able to use new technology platforms to hold governments to account, to make public services work for them.

We heard a lot about tech platforms and open data initiatives that have made significant differences to citizens. But we heard very little thought about the dangers of entrenching power and strengthening those who already have voice. We also only heard one example of the dark side of open data where it has been used to convince poorer communities to give up title to land (@timdavies pointed us to this paper which gives some details); I can’t believe there aren’t more stories out there, but open data isn’t really my field.

My question to the panel was, ‘what does success, in the fields of open government and open data, look like?’

I didn’t get much of an answer. So what do you think? If we are successful when we open up data and government, what will have changed for citizens? How do we ensure that we support the least powerful to benefit too?

Picture credit: Jarod Carruthers

7 Responses to “How will we know if open government is successful?”

  1. Andrew Ecclestone
    November 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Simon – If I recall correctly, Involve did some work and produced a report on this for the OECD a while back – possibly 2009. As ever, easier to trace outputs and intermediate outcomes than ultimate impact. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though. Will touch on this at World Conference of International Ombudsman Institute here in Wellington (NZ) this week.

  2. Andrew Ecclestone
    November 14, 2012 at 11:17 am
  3. Simon Burall
    November 14, 2012 at 12:08 pm


    thanks very much for your comment and displaying an amazing memory! You are right about the work we did for the OECD in preparing indicators for open government – for their biennial publication, Government at a Glance.

    This work did, as you note, attempt to explore how to measure outputs and intermediate outcomes. What motivated this post though, and I should have been clearer, was a sense that politicians and open government advocates aren’t talking about this agenda in terms of relevance, and impact on, citizens’ lives. I know the impact chain will be very difficult to follow, but we are getting very little from anyone in a public position that attempts a theory of change, input –> output –> outcome –> impact that would allow us to interrogate what they are saying and begin to monitor for effectiveness of what they are implementing. Any none of them are talking about the potential negative effects and how we’d begin to spot if they are occurring so that we could do something about them.

    This post from Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation, which I tweeted last night, gets the closest to it I think.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the Ombudsman conference in New Zealand, it sounds fun!

  4. November 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    We’ve recently begun facilitating the Citizen Panel for Social Services in Wales, and whilst we still have two regional panels left to run, one of the themes that came out of the first meeting was a need for transparency, as many feel they’re currently unable to scrutinise services effectively. Interestingly we weren’t even touching on the role of technology here.

    Your point on ensuring that the least powerful are able to use new technology platforms to hold governments to account is bang on the money, and the danger could be that services start to use the fact that data is available online to counter criticism (e.g. “this was online so you should have known about this”). The Welsh Government are already on record as being concerned on the effect of the digital divide on Wales (, so we certainly need to think about the effect on the digitally excluded.

    Success should look at how organisations have ensured that everyone is encouraged to access this info, use it and how this has resulted in actual change for the citizen.

    Hope that wasn’t too much of a ramble and cheers for the interesting blog!

  5. Simon Burall
    November 16, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for this, and sorry for the delay… I kept starting a response and then getting pulled away to do something else….

    I think what you say is really interesting and your comment makes me think about posing my post in a different way; ‘what is the question that open data and open government are trying to answer?’ This question will almost certainly be different if asked by citizens rather than government.

    We just had a really productive session with the Civil Society Network on Open Government. We’re developing a genuinely exciting co-production process with the Cabinet Office for the UK’s second National Action Plan. This will commit the UK government to a set of actions to be completed by October 2015. The first plan, developed without strong civil society input, focused heavily open data. We are hoping that this next one will include much more on transparency and on participation.

    I think you’ve got a really valuable, feet on the ground, perspective to add. Coming to meetings in London is going to be difficult I know, but would you be interested in:

    i. feeding into to documents where appropriate to help us lose the London focus;
    ii. joining relevant meetings virtually if we can find a sensible way to do it?
    iii. joining the OGP email list to keep up-to-date?

    These suggestions are open to other organisations interested in open government who happen to stumble across this post and get as far as the comments!

    • November 19, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Thanks Simon, we would certainly be interested in all the possibilities you mention. It would be great to feed into this agenda, especially looking at transparency and participation. Your rephrasing of the question is really interesting too, and I think that your hopes for the next action plan fit into this very well – that participation and transparency are central to the whole purpose of open government.

      If you could add to any mailings going out around this that would be great.


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