A key open data guideline that Sunlight Foundation has promoted for open data policy implementation has been to create or appoint an oversight authority to oversee the management of that policy. What have these oversight authorities looked like to date? What might they look like in the future?
Open data policy oversight to date
Almost all of the 25+ formal local open data policies on the books in the U.S. to date (including open data administrative memos, executive orders and laws) develop an authority structure for oversight of the open data policy. These authority structures either empower existing staff, such as a Chief Information Officer, City Manager or IT department, or involve hiring new staff specifically tasked with the implementation of the policy.
In the oversight of government information, other new and complementary roles have been created, such as Chief Innovation Officers (and innovation offices). New York City appointed a Chief Digital Officer who was responsible for (amongst other things) running the NYC Big Apps program, a series of large scale hackathons using the city’s open data. Over the last few years the role of Chief Data Officer (CDO) has emerged in the public as well as the private sector, despite some criticism. The CDO is generally mandated to hold different goals from the more traditional Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer roles, being mandated to manage data rather than technology projects. New York City also appointed a Chief Analytics Officer to work out of the executive branch, a role which also comprised the responsibilities of a Chief Platform Operator outlined in the city’s open data law guidance. Positioning an authority structure outside of a department or agency (i.e. outside of the IT department), and in the executive branch, provides that actor with more power to liberate data swiftly. Ideally, open data policies also include binding regulations with real consequences to not opening up data as scheduled.
For economic, administrative or other reasons, open data policy authority structures sometimes rely exclusively on existing staff. For example, some open data policy implementations have created an authority structure by mandating that a point person in each government department or agency act as that unit’s data steward. This person is often referred to as a Data Coordinator and the role thus represents an additional duty for an existing departmental staff member. Some jurisdictions have also set up internal open data working groups or advisory boards made up of these coordinators or various agency representatives.
Below you will find a list of all the authority structures laid out in open data policies across the country. It should however be noted:
- Not every management structure has been executed. NY state for example has yet create an Open Data Working group even though they are well past their 45-day mandate to do so, and while we are excited to see that San Francisco now has an Open Data Officer in place, that hiring process was completed well over a year after the passage of the legislative amendment which created the position.
- There are many jurisdictions and agencies within jurisdictions, with or without open data initiatives (let alone policies) in place, that have created roles such as a Chief Data Officer or Chief Innovation Officer.
Open Data Ombudsmen to represent the public interest
Since open data is fundamentally about providing information for the public, one logical alternative management role to create would be that of an Open Data Ombudsman or Open Data Public Advocate. In addition to existing management and operations, an Open Data Ombudsman would act independently and serve to represent the interests of the public. Public input has already been included in the priority structures of open data implementation and in the values supporting open data policies. Moreover, open data’s close relationship with right-to-know laws (they are the new public records laws, after all) suggest that an authority structure should be put in place that structurally guarantees a role for the public at the open data table.
An Open Data Ombudsman would fulfill the much needed role of having someone inside of government who was mandated to represent the public’s interest exclusively, without also having to juggle and maintain in-house government interests and relationships. While the public’s interest has consistently been stated as a value for motivating open data policies there have been few impact examples of this interest being meaningfully considered. A few notable exceptions of where outside government stakeholders have convened with government officials to weigh in on the roll out of open data implementation have been: New York City’s successful Transparency Working Group (which includes organizations invested in transparency, like Citizen’s Union, Common Cause NY, League of Womens Voters NYC, NY Public Interest Research Group, New York Civil Liberties Union, BetaNYC, OpenPlans, Reinvent Albany and Women’s City Club), which has since been remixed and replicated at the New York state level, and events like Philadelphia’s Open Data Race, which collected local non-profit organizations provide project related data requests and had the public vote on it. An Open Data Ombudsman could not only facilitate stakeholder discussions and partnerships like this but be a permanent fixture representing these interests throughout the entire implementation process.
An Open Data Ombudsman (in addition to other third parties) could also provide more objective open data progress reporting that reflect the interest of the public. Unsurprisingly, the self-assessed local open data policy progress reports conducted to date have not critiqued the types of data being released against what the public would like to see — see a full list below:
Chicago Open Data Annual Report for 2013 (self-assessed)
NYC’s Digital Leadership Roadmap (self-assessed)
NYC’s Open Data Law: Progress and Challenges (third party assessed)
Open NY One Year Report (self-assessed)
Opening New York: Technology and Open Government (third party assessed)
Oakland Public Ethics Commission Report on “Toward Collaborative Transparency” (third party assessed)
Philadelphia’s Data Publishing Opportunities (self-assessed)
Philadelphia’s Open Data Executive Order Report Card 1 Year Later (third party assessed)
The current authority structures rolling out open data policy implementation have had to wear many (often conflicting) hats at once — manager, technical lead, mediator, enforcer, evangelist and ombudsman. To create the open data ecosystems we’d like to see in the future, it will be important to rethink effective management structures that truly represent the public interest in addition to the job of managing data workflows. Since open data policy and implementation are still relatively new, there is room for new models for the enforcement of open data policies to emerge and we’ll continue to assess which represent the most effective means for achieving open data. If we truly want to prioritize the public’s interest in how open data policies are implemented and how data is released, open data policies will have to set up authority structures that protect and represent the public’s interest.