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/

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