OpenGov Conversations: Tim Davies on Creating Effective Transparency Policies

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This post is part of our series, OpenGov Conversations, an ongoing discourse featuring contributions from transparency and accountability researchers and practitioners around the world.

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This post, by guest author Tim Davies, responds to the following questions:
What are the three most important conditions that make transparency policies effective? And must these conditions precede effective transparency interventions, or can transparency policies actually positively bring about these conditions? Read the other responses here.

Transparency and accountability are so often discussed in the same breath that it’s not uncommon to find them treated as synonyms. The same is increasingly true of openness and transparency. Yet these three terms, openness, transparency and accountability each refer to distinct parts of a process of bringing about change, and there can be gaps, failures and frustrations at each step of the way.

Governments engaging with open data often presenting this as equivalent to transparency. Yet as Larsson writes“Openness might… be thought of as a characteristic of the organization, whereas transparency also requires external receptors capable of processing the information made available” (Larsson, 1998). That is to say, openness doesn’t necessarily lead to transparency unless the information made available is both usable, and there are people capable of using it. This makes the transparency relationship one with two parties: the institution being ‘open’, and the receiver able to make sense of the information provided, encouraging us to ask who an institution is becoming transparent too. For example, greater transparency to elites might have very different effects from transparency that also reaches grassroots communities and a broader base of citizens.

The move from transparency to accountability is similarly complex. Accountability involves the capacity to “elicit justification, render judgment and impose sanctions” on those with power (Joshi, 2012). Whether or not citizens have the capacity to exercise these powers as a result of a discover through an effective transparency intervention will depend on the laws, institutions, media environment and current political dynamics in a country, amongst other things. Transparency in a country with strong, well resourced audit institutions, where citizen pressure can shape the agenda of the auditors, linking citizen power with institutionalized power, may have very different impacts from in a country where formal institutions are weak, and citizen anger cannot be harnessed.

Of course, transparency advocates may see their role as stopping short of directly securing accountability. There is a case for the transparency of powerful institutions as an intrinsic good, even if increased accountability does not directly flow due to other blocks and limitations. And, as the question above suggests, it’s possible that over time, transparency could play a role in creating conditions for accountability: for example, by stimulating a more independent media and, through efficiencies in access to information, better equipping audit institutions. However, these consequences are by no means inevitable, not least if the scope of effective transparency is limited and it is only elites who gain increased access to information.

So, with this pre-amble in place, what are the three most important conditions that make transparency policies effective?. This of course begs the question ‘effective at what?’. And it needs us to ask about the focus of transparency. The conditions for transparency to deliver change when it comes to tax justice may be quite different from the conditions required for it to deliver on a local environmental issue. This suggests a first answer of ‘context sensitivity’: transparency initiatives need to take into account the background against which they are being introduced.

In the case studies for the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project we’re exploring context along at least six-dimensions: political, economic, social, legal, organisational and technical; as well as mapping out key stakeholders in the settings where open data interventions have been introduced. This provides a foundation for exploring how interventions interact with context across diverse cases. Whilst transparency interventions from one setting can provide powerful templates for other settings, it is important to see them as examples to learn from, rather than as necessarily ‘best practices’ that can simply be transplanted from one setting to another.

For the second and third conditions, let me put forward two hypothesis of important aspects for successful transparency interventions. Firstly, inclusiveness, and secondly partnerships. Neither of these are necessarily consequences of transparency, nor designed into all initiatives, but there is a strong case for focussing on them. In the case of inclusiveness, some ‘pragmatic’ transparency initiatives may focus on getting information to an empowered middle class, drawing on the political influence of this group to secure change; but unless effective transparency also extends to other groups in society, power imbalances are reconfigured, but ultimately unchallenged. Philosophies of going after ‘low hanging fruit’ when designing transparency interventions may deliver initial results faster, but can often leave interventions very different from those that more inclusive design processes may have resulted in.

The importance of collaboration and partnerships in transparency interventions was highlighted by Avilla et. al (2011) discussing how “Technology for transparency and accountability projects have a better chance of effectively producing change when they take a collaborative approach, sometimes involving government and/or service providers”. The journey from openness, to inclusive transparency, and delivering accountability, can involve many steps and many stakeholders, and the ability to connect up across stakeholder groups is likely an important one for transparency interventions. In theory, transparency can help bring about collaboration, at least at the level of collaborating on common information sources: but deeper forms of trust and institutional collaboration may require additional work to build.

In the ODDC project we know there are no simple answers to the question ‘what makes an open data intervention effective in bringing about transparency and change?’. But we hope that by looking in-depth at particular cases of open data in use, and transparency in action, we can sharpen our understanding of principles that might guide more effective practice.

Bio: Tim Davies is research co-ordinator for the Web Foundation’s Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries project (www.opendataresearch.org/emergingimpacts | @odrnetwork) and is a PhD student in the Web Science Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Southampton.

References:

Avila, R., Feigenblatt, H., Heacock, R., & Heller, N. (2011). Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability: New technologies.

Joshi, A. (2012). Do They Work? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in Service Delivery.

Larsson, T. (1998). How open can a government be? The Swedish experience. Openness and Transparency in the European Union

 

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