Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Exploring the twofold influence of ICT over NGOs working with governmental information and data


Also here: http://opendatacon.org/exploring-twofold-influence-ict-ngos-working-governmental-information-data/

There is some recognition of the silos in which organizations in the government-information field currently work. Despite a general uniformity of treatment, or even minimal coverage, in the academic literature, Freedom of Information (FOI) and Open Government Data (OGD) communities have not only different backgrounds but also a diverse set of goals and drivers. ICT influence is a mayor element that allows for a better understanding of those differences (1).

In the past decade ICT driven changes has dramatically influenced the way citizens and governments interact with information. Citizens and governments now have direct channels to interact, from feedback mechanisms, to information and data requests platform, to formal and informal participation in decision-making processes. A diverse set of channels of interaction is now available, e.g. citizens demand information and also governments use social media tools to let the public know about their performance (Davies and Fumega 2014 p.2). Thus, in the case of the FOI field, citizens face the possibility of accessing information at just a click away. Furthermore, the option of submitting on-line requests enables users to request information even when they are not in the same city or even the same country, depending on the specifications of the platform (Fumega 2015 p.4). 

However, ICT has not only exerted its impact over government-citizen relationships by providing new channels to connect and communicate. ICT presents a twofold influence over the information management-related fields as well as the advocacy organisations. On one side, ICT developments have provided new tools and channels to facilitate communication and to manage information and data in un-anticipated ways. On the other hand, the background behind many of the experts on these digital information and communication tools has influenced actors in civil society and also in government circles (2).

As the informational environment has changed because of the influence of ICT in all communication and information areas, so did organisational structure of some of the FOI organisations that were created after the second half of the 2000s. ICT developments allowed for flatter and more flexible structures (3)

This differential influence of ICT over the organisations, in terms of the influence of ICT tools in the period they were created, provides the necessary explanation for those newly created FOI oriented organisations. Thus, some of the organisations created in this past decade, despite pursuing transparency and accountability goals and relying on adversarial approaches towards government, are structured in a more flexible and flatter way (closer to post-bureaucracy organisational types). They are some of the organisations that are better positioned to connect with some other OGD organisations. Their understanding of ICT tools as well as ICT related topics, for example the connections with the digital rights’ field, positions them slightly closer to their OGD counterparts without losing their identity. Thus, in the context of a networked society, these newly created organizations tend to work in closer collaboration with others, outside and within organisations. They also tend to be more flexible and adapt to new methods of operation more easily. 

ICT has proved to be the facilitator for mayor changes in communication and information management. Thus, despite the fact that organisational changes are particularly noticeable in FOI and OGD fields, they are intrinsically connected to the changes in how information and data is handled, including by governments and civil society organisations. However, these trends could also be translated to other fields, as people deal with information and data in all sorts of ways to perform their daily tasks. Organisations in most other fields might not adopt the hackers spirit that some of the OGD organisations embodied but they are moving towards more flexible and adaptable structures, taking advantage of the new developments which face, among other issues, budget constraints, as some newly created FOI organisations clearly demonstrate. 

The key point, which requires further exploration, is how the traditional organisations working in the government information field (most of the FOI organizations) adapt to the new channels of communications and information management. Despite the importance of having FOI legislation and the more traditional advocacy approach, it is important to question FOI organizations’ ability to adapt (and the entire FOI field).  The principles behind the right that allows the public to access and use government-held and produced information and data will probably remain unaffected for the next few years. However, the channels and tools to access and make use of those resources are rapidly changing. The ability of the rights-based FOI organisations, in particular, to adapt to this changing environment and to adopt new tools and channels will determine the future of the field, or at least their role in the informational resources ecosystem. In this context, collaboration between the actors working with governmental information and data is not longer desirable but necessary.

(1) The ideas included in this post are part of a larger study on International NGOs working on governmental information and data (PhD thesis, supervisor: Rick Snell)
I’m grateful for the useful comments provided by Marcos Mendiburu and Fabrizio Scrollini. However, I’m solely responsible for the content of this post.
(2) A popular initiative among transparency advocates is the permanent hacker lab inside the Brazilian Congress. For more information: Swislow, D. (2014 January 3).
(3) Post-bureaucratic structures rise in parallel with the increasing influence of technology in communications and some of their features would be impossible without ICT developments.

Unlike bureaucratic organisations, the main features of post-bureaucracy forms include, the reduction of formal levels of hierarchy, an emphasis on flexibility and an increase use of sub-contracting, temporary work and the use of consultants rather than permanent and/or in-house expertise. All these aspects are closely tied to the development of ICTs, and in particular, the influence ICTs have in developing new forms of communication.

- Davies, T. and S. Fumega (2014). Mixed Incentives: Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption. U4 Issue 2014 (4). Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.cmi.no/publications/file/5172-mixed-incentives.pdf

Fumega, S. (2015). Information & Communication Technologies and Access to Public Information Laws. Washington DC: Transparency and Access to Information Network (RTA) and World Bank. Retrieved from: http://redrta.cplt.cl/_public/public/folder_attachment/a5/1a/1a8b_42ea.pdf
·  - Swislow, D. (2014, January 3). A permanent hacker space in the Brazilian Congress. Open Parliament Blog. Retrieved From: http://blog.openingparliament.org/

Friday, May 20, 2016

The increasing demand for measuring


The increased use of the concepts of transparency and openness has fuelled the demand for measurements, rankings and assessments on FOI (Freedom of Information) legislation and OGD (Open Government Data) policies, especially as global comparative exercises. The past two decades have witnessed these FOI legislation and OGD policies become key developments in the transparency and openness areas. The number of FOI laws worldwide has exceeded 100. In less than a decade, OGD initiatives have also increased with the number of countries with OGD expanding significantly after the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP)(1).

Even though these developments (FOI and OGD) have taken place in a relatively short period of time, actors need to start analyzing what are the gaps between expectations and reality. It would be a sign of maturity to limit the grandiose statements and focus on what governments and society are achieving by publishing and reusing government data and information.

It is getting much clearer that measuring impact (despite it has become a buzzword these days) in the strict sense of the word, is extremely difficult, in particular when trying to link certain changes to a particular isolated intervention. 

Actors on both the demand and supply sides of government-held information and data are behind the requests for such measurements. On the demand side, advocacy groups and practitioners need to present impact-related figures to donors and governments, but it is difficult to do so when its impact is difficult to be empirically proved. On the supply side, the champions of increasing access to information within public administrations need to “sell” the benefits of these types of policies by showing the decision-making heads of agencies and/or governments, and the staff required to implement the policies, that their ‘pros’ surpass their ‘cons’.

International rankings, ratings, indices, barometers all refer to the idea of placing the elements of a given domain in a particular order. However, this order is not arbitrary. All the measurement mechanisms refer to the placement of a certain list of objects according to a set of criteria or variables, which in turn depend on the values of those creating the measurement tool. Even though measurements and assessments in both fields relate to the availability of different types of information/data, the main features of each field differentiates them. Thus, the criteria and variables selected in the FOI field differ from the ones applied in the OGD context.

Unsurprisingly, despite the many differences between the FOI and OGD fields, in both cases the measurements and assessments relate to the availability of different types of information and data. However, there are also other elements in common that could help organize (and possibly correlate) some of the most well-known assessment exercises, as well as explain the main differences between the two fields. Some of the main elements to differentiate both fields are the object (information, data, proactively and reactively disclosed, for example to measure transparency and/or broader goals), the geographic scope of the exercise (one-country, regional and global assessments), and the type of assessment (legal, performance/implementation, among others). 

Different assessments cover different jurisdictions as well as they examine different aspects of the disclosure of government information. In doing so, they use a variety of criteria and methodologies. Regardless of the particularities, comparative measurements and assessments are based on the idea that those holding the first position in the ranking are more valuable/useful/have greater impact than the lower ranked objects. However, what it actually means is that those policies or laws that are ranked highly are just closer to the preferred — or ideal — model set by the author of the scale. As the criteria and variables selected for measurement in the FOI and OGD domains differ, so the ideal conditions for each domain exhibit differences as well.

As rankings/ratings, and other exercises, assess particular aspects and characteristics in each initiative (FOI and/or OGD) they do not necessarily place a country/district in the same position, as they tend to examine different aspects of the disclosure of government information. Thus, comparing the results of such assessments should therefore be done with an eye on these differences, in order not to draw any quick conclusions. 

Examples of that partial and misleading picture could be found if we were to draw conclusions by simply extrapolating from the RTI rating results for India and Liberia. On paper, both of these countries have enacted strong FOI legislation, which are placed among the best laws in the field. In the case of India, despite its high score of 128/150 in the RTI rating, the country is placed 85/175 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and the Open Data Barometer gives the country a 39/100. Liberia presents a similar scenario. The RTI rating gives the country’s FOI law a high score (124/150) but the World Justice Open Government Index 2015 (2) scores the country with a low figure (0.35/1), as does as the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (94/175). 

Thus, to obtain a more accurate picture of a given jurisdiction it is necessary to gather information from a myriad of assessment’s exercises on different aspects of the disclosure of government information and data. This combination of information (from different assessments made by different actors on a variety of aspects regarding government’s disclosure of information and data) also could help to identify the cases of resistance to effective transparency by understanding administrative bottlenecks and the type of information/data that governments are withholding, among other elements. In a similar vain, because the letter of the legislation sometimes says little about the actual implementation of it in practice and thus the reality of access to government-held information and data in a given country, it is necessary to assess the production of statistics on compliance with FOI and OGD requirements. This information is mostly provided by governmental assessments (agencies in charge of implementation and/or oversight agencies) of their own policies and legislation. These systematic exercises allow advocates and academics to learn about the implementation status of the legislation and policies.

To sum up, there is a need for comprehensive exercises in terms of government-held and produced information and data. So far, we have partial snapshots and not the whole picture. Adding to this lack of comprehensive exercises, there is also a need for further research to develop a framework to understand not only the availability but also the use of information and data in a global comparative exercise. In order to take the first steps to achieve these improvements in terms of measurements and evaluation, a closer collaboration between the actors behind the demand and supply of data and information is needed. 

Just to close this posts that it is getting too extensive, it is necessary to highlight that there is a need for comprehensive exercises of the availability and use of government-held and produced information and data but, in order to achieve that, it is also necessary that the actors working in the field, in particular civil society actors making use of that information and data, start evaluating and planning their actions more carefully. If the actors can provide a clear idea of the results (I’m consciously avoiding the use of the word impact) it would help in the design and implementation of a global aggregated measurement exercise. To have a clear picture of the whole ecosystem would benefit all actors involved.


(1) Many of the ideas included in this post were already explored in the article “Understanding two mechanisms for accessing government information and data around the world”: http://webfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/UnderstandingTwoMechanismsforAccessingGovernmentInformationandData 

I’m grateful for the useful comments provided by Marcos Mendiburu. However, I’m solely responsible for the content of this post. 

(2) It is worth noting that several FOI specialists have questioned the World Justice Open Government Index. For example: http://www.freedominfo.org/2015/04/design-of-wjp-open-gov-index-skews-results/ and http://www.freedominfo.org/2015/04/wjp-open-government-index-raises-interesting-questions/