New paper offers evidence for impact of open government

Features necessary to an effective open government program. [Brookings Institute]
Features necessary to an effective open government program. (Image credit: Brookings Institution)

While Americans are considering unanswered questions about what President-elect Donald Trump will mean for open government in the United States, a global conversation about transparency and accountability is ongoing about the relevance and outcomes of open government reforms to their societies. Now, there’s useful new research that advocates can use in their work.

In a new paper published by the Brookings Institution assessing the impact of open government, Vanessa Williamson and Norman Eisen conducted a literature review of hundreds of peer-reviewed academic studies, articles and reports that consider the effectiveness of programs.

Williamson, a fellow at Brookings, and Eisen, who served in the White House as an ethics counsel in the first two years of the Obama administration, focused on studies examining three categories of impact: “budgetary savings (including reductions in corruption), improvements to public services, and broader and deeper public participation.” Their research identified six features of open government initiatives that correlate with a high probability of successful outcomes. These authors listed these features using the following questions:

  1. Have the proponents identified the specific principals (e.g. segments of the public, civil society, media and other stakeholders) intended to benefit from the new open government initiative?
  2. Is the information revealed by the initiative important to the principals?
  3. Is the information accessible and publicized to the principals?
  4. Can the principals respond meaningfully as individuals?
  5. Are governmental agents supportive of the reform effort?
  6. Can the principals coordinate to change their governmental agents’ incentives?

Williamson and Eisen argue that when the answer to questions 1-3 is “yes” and when the answer to one of questions 4-6 is also in the affirmative, open government reforms are effective. This flowchart is described in the graphic on the top of this post.

Promise and caveats

There are a number of cautions in the research, with some recommendations, along with unanswered questions.

For instance, the researchers note, “Those who wish to make transparent processes inclusive must not only guard against unintentionally reinforcing structures of inequality, but consider ways to compensate for existing hierarchies.” If we are to mandate that being public means publishing data online, for example, then ensuring universal broadband access to the internet becomes critical to ensure equity in access, as does literacy, digital or otherwise.

Elsewhere, the authors observe a “tendency to self-selection among those who participate” in open government efforts, writing, “It is not just the powerful, but the interested, who tend to participate in politics.” The challenges that poses to our politics and open government reforms in the age of social media are both obvious and subtle, as Eisen and Williamson acknowledge:

The views of the highly engaged may be quite different from those held by the average member of the public, and so public forums may come to be polarized, even when most people hold moderate views on a subject. As a result, “extreme voices” can exert a disproportionate influence in civic spaces. In these instances, theorists have suggested that transparency can reduce the possibility for compromise, a prerequisite for governance in a pluralistic society.

In answer to this theory, the authors cede only that “more research is needed to identify when extremism might be a result of transparency and what institutional forms might mitigate this concern.”

To the authors’ credit, they also acknowledge other issues, including the impact of “negativity bias” to freedom of information laws to dissemination by journalists and partisan media outlets.

There is good evidence to suggest that people naturally prioritize bad news over good news. For instance, citizens in the UK reported lower satisfaction when they learned that local recycling services were comparatively bad, but not more satisfaction when they learned that services were especially good. Negativity bias is also well documented in the media, a threat that has long been a source of policymakers’ resistance to transparency.

For that challenge, there is at least one approach that has promise: positive interventions in people’s live informed by behavioral economics.

A field experimental study of personal Social Security statements, which provided recipients with information about their expected benefits from the U.S. public pension system, found that the statements increased knowledge of and confidence in the program.

In the face of widespread public distrust in both media and government, dedicated efforts to increase exposure to evidence-based knowledge about health, science, education, environment, energy, transport, elections and all aspects of governance. Positive impacts on informing or connecting the public to services is clearly possible, but inequities in benefit are not only exacerbated by differences in connectivity or economic status but by the considerable challenge of ensuring that data and documents find people whose attention is being pulled in many different directions, instead of requiring people to find the data.

Here, Eisen and Williamson offer specific, actionable recommendations:

Open data projects should be adaptable for use not only by individuals but by media, academics, and civil society organizations. They should also be amenable to aggregation to the level of official accountability. Those considering direct monitoring as an approach to transparency should ensure that the information in question is truly accessible to the monitors. In addition, there is a critical role for a free and active press in reporting open government information. Here, as throughout our analysis, open government works best when the institutions and mechanisms of democracy are strong.

The researchers’ most challenging conclusion, however, may be their acknowledgment of substantial evidence that “monitoring government processes can result in perverse effects.” They list three forms of these perverse effects: attention to process over outcomes, displacement of corruption to a less-observed area, and strategic “improvement” of observed behaviors that are not followed by genuine improvements to government services.

To address these behaviors or outcomes, the researchers recommend both better monitoring strategies and a more fundamental approach: ensuring that the actors care about transparency and accountability in their work. That’s best achieved by collective action that leverages transparency regarding politicians, government workers and officials into accountability for reform and improvement. Here, the authors offer a number of examples and approaches based upon evidence that will be useful for advocates and officials alike to consider.

The authors end by considering two issues that are highly relevant to governments in transition: politics and sustainability. Sustainability will be measured not only in the costs of programs, platforms, or the regulatory burdens of compliance measured against the societal harms associated with corruption or low participation, but the degree to which benefits are acknowledged and embraced in legislatures and judiciaries.

In an ideal world, changes in power cast into stark relief the efficacy of programs, laws, reforms and initiatives implemented by a previous administration and continue those that held promise. In the one that we inhabit, the association of a open government initiative with a political party as opposed to a set of national principles or standards may be to its detriment. Reformers that wish to institutionalize reforms must therefor ensure that their impact and benefit are recognized across ideological spectrums and the media outlets that are aligned with them.

It’s into this tumultuous reality that this research paper is injected, where norms, laws and standards that we might take for granted must now be defended and justified. In that context, Eisen and Williamson have made a valuable contribution to the evidence base we can all draw from in the year ahead.