Why should cities have an open data policy?

by
city skyline in data drawing

As more cities break into the world of transparency, policy remains an important piece of the open data puzzle.

At this year’s iteration of our annual open government unconference, TransparencyCamp, I had the pleasure of leading a session on the role of policy in the open data movement, and a particular question seemed to strike a chord with participants: Just how relevant and important is an open data policy to a successful open data program? What does it actually accomplish, not just symbolically, but functionally?

Or, to put it more bluntly, why have an open data policy?

As part of the What Works Cities initiative, the Sunlight Foundation is working with cities across the country to help support the adoption of meaningful and sustainable open data policies. But what I heard in our session was that other factors — namely strong executive support, capable IT staff, department-level buy-in, outside pressure from community groups and an engaged public — were the ingredients that truly mattered most. It seemed to some of the open data practitioners in the room that it was these factors that could get datasets online, not a static policy document filled with the flowery legalese of “whereas” clauses.

In a way this feedback was not surprising. In a movement where departments with names like “DoIT” model themselves on a startup culture that values disruption above all else, perhaps municipal legislation and mayoral executive orders are too old-guard, representative of the very same outdated way of doing things that civic technologists are trying to move away from. Policies can sound like committees and smell like bureaucracy. But surely, these aren’t the ingredients for a successful open data initiative? After all, this is a movement more about source code than legal code.

But a recent trip to New Orleans showed me how necessary and effective an open data policy can be in the context of bringing about those very same ingredients for open data success we identified at TCamp.

New Orleans is a city that has been recognized as a leader in the civic tech arena. Open data projects like Code for America’s blightSTATUS have received national publicity, and the city has had a Socrata-powered open data portal since 2011, which currently boasts 168 datasets. New Orleans has accomplished all this despite not counting itself among the 39 U.S. cities that have adopted an open data policy.

At first glance, the New Orleans example sounds like exactly the scenario discussed at TCamp, one in which an open data initiative is about just doing it, and any policy work would be superfluous.

However, when we met with city officials as part of Sunlight’s recent engagement with New Orleans through the What Works Cities initiative, I was encouraged to learn that this was not the case. City officials had taken a hard look at at their current open data processes and practices in order to identify what the needs were, and the conclusion was that an open data policy would be crucial — not just as a symbolic document, but as a practical tool for addressing real data concerns.

Here are four of the concrete reasons discussed with New Orleans describing why an open data policy is needed to advance an existing open data program without one:

1. Codifying and advancing existing open data practice

The city’s biggest concern was that their current practices were ad hoc and varied from department to department. Therefore, a primary objective of a new open data policy was to put forth a basic standard framework in writing that could be referenced to get everyone on the same page. By having an adopted policy on paper, certain best practices regarding format, what qualifies as sensitive information, etc. could be standardized and form a basis for future evaluation of success.

2. Building internal buy-in

Data managers, chief innovation officers, and/or IT departments are the public officials typically charged with the nuts-and-bolts implementation of open data initiatives; yet municipal organizational charts often do not grant jurisdiction for those entities to hold all city departments accountable for data, or even to simply require a listing of departmental data holdings (a data inventory). This can be the case, even if it is communicated that such an endeavor is a part of a mayor/executive-supported initiative.

In New Orleans, although the city has published many datasets, no comprehensive data inventory has been completed to simply identify what datasets are held by each department. This is at least partially attributable to lack of formal department-level involvement and buy-in. Therefore, another objective for an open data policy in New Orleans is to provide a clear mandate to department heads that makes those data requests from IT real, and not just something optional to be done if spare time allows. A policy that the IT department or open data manager can reference that names this authority and requires the appointment of department-level data coordinators can go a long way to change the nature of those IT-to-department conversations.

3. Communicating an executive’s strong open data commitment as an invitation to public engagement

At TransparencyCamp, strong executive support and the pressure of public expectation were both identified as crucial ingredients for a successful open data program. Departments are less likely to be reluctant to implement an open agenda if these respectively top-down and external pressures are present. But how are strong executive support and public expectation best communicated to departments? Here again, policy provides an important part of the answer. An executive order from the mayor can send a message of strong executive-level commitment to both internal stakeholders and to the public. Put another way, executive support without an executive order is not as actionable for the chief innovation officer or department heads, and may well be unknown to the public — meaning an opportunity to engage and set a public expectation has been missed.

4. Building a legal framework for accountability and enforcement both in the present and in the future

Finally, an open data policy can begin to build a lasting legal framework for accountability and enforcement, something New Orleans was very keen on firming up. By requiring an annual report, an executive order can provide a basis for evaluating departmental compliance, providing another incentive for department-level accountability. By building upon existing public records acts, the open data policy can also begin to create a legal right to open data for the public. Some jurisdictions — including Chicago and Maryland — have even enacted provisions allowing for punitive measures for non-open-data-compliant department heads.

By establishing this legal framework, an open data policy can provide a measure of assurance that an open data program will outlive any particular administration or particular data manager. In New Orleans, this legal framework for accountability and enforcement was identified as crucial to the ongoing success of the program.

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Admittedly, policy may not be the sexiest or most exciting part of an open data initiative when compared to a shiny web portal, the raw data itself or the new civic tools that open data powers. However, our experience with New Orleans points to the real need for a policy, even in cities that have built some initial success without one.

We at Sunlight will be sure to keep you in the loop as the work in New Orleans moves forward!