An Open Data Ombudsman and rethinking oversight authorities


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
(Scroll within table to view all entries and read all the policies here.)

Jurisdiction, Date

Authority Structure Outlined in Open Data Policy

Austin, TX, 2011

Charges the City Manager with work with the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission and repor bi-monthly to the Council Emerging Technology and Telecommunications Committee.

New York City, NY, 2012

NYC’s technical manual calls for the creation of a Chief Open Platform Officer and agency designated Data Coordinators. In practice, the mayor also appointed a Chief Analytics Officer (who was also the Chief Platform Officer) and also prior to the open data law created a Chief Digital Officer role who was charged with convening hackathons amongst other things.

Providence, RI, 2012

Calls for the creation of a new oversight commission called Open Providence Commission for Transparency and Accountability to recommend transparency next steps.

Philadelphia, PA, 2012

Directs the Mayor and the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO)  to establish an Open Data Working Group (made up of senior level representatives from program and management offices) who together are called to select a Chief Data Officer. The Mayor was also called to appoint a Data Governance Advisory Board, consisting of: 9 members, including the CIO, CDO, a mayor appointed chair, and with nominations and recommendations coming from the Working Group. Of note, the policy also stated: “The Working Group will also provide a forum to develop innovative ideas for promoting open government goals including collaborations with researchers the private sector and the public and for developing resolutions to issues raised through the public feedback mechanisms of the Open Government Portal.”

San Francisco, CA, 2012 amendment

Calls for the appointment of a Chief Data Officer in addition to department appointed Data Coordinators.

Montgomery County, MD, 2012

Calls for the Chief Administrative Officer to report quarterly to the Council on the Executive Branch’s compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act. Montgomery County also has a Director of Innovation position not designated under the open data law.

Chicago, IL, 2012

Calls for the creation of a Chief Data Officer and the appointment of Data Coordinators as well as an Open Data Advisory Group to assist the Dept. of Technology on the creation of a annual open data compliance report.

Madison, WI, 2013

Although the Information Technology Department is not responsible for identifying or publishing datasets it is required that if agencies “cannot or will not make all of its publicly available data sets available through the city’s website the agency shall file a written report with the IT Department and with the Common Council setting forth” which data won’t be published why and the date by which it expects to be able to make that data available.

San Mateo County, 2013

The County Manager and Chief Information Officer were assigned to: form an internal County Open Data Committee, designate an Open Data Manager in the Information Services Department (“ISD”), designate a department contact person(s) to work with internal/external auditors, County staff and Measure A Oversight Committee members, and coordinate between ISD and Departments to ensure the review of datasets for the open data portal. (With clear responsibilities outlined for the Department, County, and Staff outlined in the Open Data Policy)

Utah, 2013

Calls to move the Transparency Advisory Board from the Division of Finance to the Department of Administrative Services and modifies the board’s members and expands its duties.

New York, 2013

Calls for the creation of a “Data Working Group” made up of representatives from the state Technical Service and Information Security division, the NY State Office of General Services, the Division of Budget, a representative from the Department of state with expertise in local government and 8-12 Data Coordinators. The Working Group’s main function is to aid the Chief Data Officer in implementation of the guidance created by the Open Data Handbook (which they will consult on).

Hawaii, 2013

Requires the Chief Information Officer to “develop policies and procedures to implement the open data initiative.”

Tulsa, OK, 2013

Calls for the establishment for an unnamed “committee of City employees and local volunteers to aide in the achievement of above goals.”

New Hampshire, 2013

The state commissioner is called to assist state agencies in the purchase or creation of data processing devices or systems that comply with open standards for the accessing storing or transferring of data.

South Bend, IN, 2013

Calls for the creation of an Open Data Management Team (a group within IT) and agency and commission Data Coordinators.

Louisville, KY, 2013

Calls for the creation of an Open Data Management Team to establish a Chief Information Officer to work with each department to identify department Data Coordinators.

Oakland, CA, 2013

Calls for the City Administrator to receive regular ongoing input from those City employees (TBD) responsible for data collection in their respective organizational units.

West Sacramento, CA, 2013

Calls for the creations of an Open Data Advisory Group chaired by the Information Technology Manager and include open data coordinators from all city departments.

Honolulu, HI, 2013

Calls for oversight by the Director of Information Technology in Consultation w/ city and state Information Officers.

Connecticut, 2014

Calls for a Chief Data Officer (who shall be a classified manager employed by the Office of Policy & Management) and designated by the Governor to manage the Open Data Portal. Calls for each state agency to identify an Agency Data Office (“ADO”) and for the creation of an Open Data Advisory Panel to provide advice to the CDO on the performance of his [or her] duties as specified in this order.

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:

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.