The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability: A Response to Yu and Robinson’s The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”
60 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 200
David Robinson and Harlan Yu are among the foremost scholars in the field of open government data research. With their 2009 article, Government Data and the Invisible Hand,1 Robinson, Yu, and their colleagues were among the first in the academic community to offer a well-articulated rationale for the release of governmental data in open formats.
In 2012, Robinson and Yu returned with a new contribution to the field—The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”—providing an analytical framework that evinces the ambiguities underlying the term “open government data.”2 The distinction suggested is a conceptual milestone in the field of open government and data and a welcome addition to a developing body of literature on the subject.
To build on the authors’ contribution, I put forward two arguments. First, I contend that the authors ignore the enabling conditions under which transparency may lead to accountability. I suggest that for adaptable data to engender accountability, it must fulfill at least two conditions: the publicity and political agency conditions. In discussing the agency condition, I also expand on Robinson and Yu’s argument by emphasizing the importance of participatory mechanisms to foster better services and policies. In this sense, I argue that the authors overlook the role of civic participation as an essential element in unlocking the potential for open data to produce better government decisions and policies.
Finally, I use the analytical backdrop of developed and developing countries in which national governments have recently promoted open data initiatives to conduct an empirical analysis of their publicity and political agency conditions. By doing so, I broaden the analytical scope adopted by Robinson and Yu—which tends to focus on the United States—while highlighting the challenges associated with open data as a path to accountability.
I. The Conditions for Accountability
A central element of Robinson and Yu’s argument is the notion that while governments may increasingly deliver open data, such initiatives are not necessarily conducive to achieving accountability goals. Given the ambiguity of the term “open government data,” the authors argue, public sector actors may project a veneer of openness by publishing data that has little or nothing to do with accountability.3
While such an assertion is correct, the authors disregard the possibility that even when publishing adaptable data that could promote public accountability (as advocated in their essay), actual accountability still might be far from achieved. Such analytical oversight stems from the absence of a more in-depth examination of the relationship between transparency and accountability, which is revealed by the authors’ nearly interchangeable use of the two terms throughout their essay. I distinguish these terms below.
Public transparency broadly refers to a concept that encompasses the disclosure of actions taken by public actors and institutions.4 While in part a relational concept—one must ask transparent to whom—public actors can still characterize transparency as a unilateral act of disclosure. Indeed, transparency may be realized without third parties scrutinizing or engaging with the disclosed information. Accountability, on the other hand, necessarily presupposes a degree of interaction, based on a principal-agent relationship5 in which the former holds the latter accountable for its actions in the public realm.
Given these definitions, any accountability mechanism built on disclosure principles requires a minimal chain of events that can be summarized in the following manner: (1) Governmental information is disclosed; (2) The disclosed information reaches its intended public; (3) Members of the public are able to process the disclosed information and react to it; and (4) Public officials respond to the public’s reaction or are sanctioned by the public through institutional means.
This path toward accountability highlights the limits of transparency. Even in the most simplified model of accountability, transparency accounts for no more than one fourth of the process. Building on previous research on the subject,6 I argue that at least two conditions—the publicity and political agency conditions—must be fulfilled for politically important adaptable data to engender true accountability.
A. The Publicity Condition
Defining accountability as a principal-agent relationship implies that citizens’ capacity to hold public officials accountable depends in part on the amount and quality of information at their disposal. An extensive body of literature on the sources of accountability thus underscores the importance of citizens’ knowledge of public actions,7 demonstrating that transparency can enable accountability only when the publicity condition is fulfilled.8 Scholars define this condition as the extent to which disclosed information actually reaches and resonates with its intended audiences.9 Two implications emerge from this requirement.
First, for adaptable data to reach the public, it must be widely accessible. Even if opening data lowers the barriers for third parties to access and reuse it, the capacity to process data in machine-readable formats depends on a specific set of technical skills10 and resources that are hardly accessible to most citizens. While it is important to acknowledge that “data is not just for developers,”11 most citizens depend on technically skilled and resourced individuals and organizations to mediate their access to adaptable data.12 By its very nature, the provision of adaptable data cannot be automatically equated with transparency. Ironically, in many cases, adaptable data only realizes transparency goals when techno-mediators13 process it for general public consumption.
Assuming the presence of the technological capacity to process politically important data, the existence of a vigorous free press (and internet) constitutes the second requirement for adaptable data to fulfill the publicity condition.14 From this perspective, free press is conceived as a vehicle that de facto renders public the disclosed information,15 thereby reducing the information asymmetry between citizens and governments. Similarly, the press serves as both a mechanism for external control of governmental action and a platform for citizens to voice their concerns.16
If the evidence demonstrates that free press is more likely to engender accountability,17 then adaptable data is more likely to enter the accountability equation to the extent that media actors routinely convey it to the public. Otherwise, politically important data remains unknown to the public, undermining its potential to generate any accountability.18
Hypothetically, a number of actors, such as civil society organizations, social movements, academics, engaged individuals, and even search engines could still enable the publicity condition in the absence of a free press. Nonetheless, the potential for this mediation to take place is a function of the political freedoms and civil rights in place. Unfortunately, more often than not, press freedom goes hand in hand with fundamental rights and freedoms. In contexts of limited press freedom, the potential for third parties to play a role in fostering the publicity condition is also seriously constrained.19
B. The Political Agency Condition
In addition to the publicity condition, mechanisms through which citizens can sanction or reward public officials must be in place to satisfy the political agency condition.20 Otherwise, in the absence of such a system, public officials have little incentive to be responsive and accountable to citizens’ concerns, and transparency is all the less meaningful.21
From this perspective, the absence of free, fair, and periodic elections emerges as a clear constraint on transparency’s capacity to enable accountability. A growing body of empirical research supports this claim, highlighting the limitations and even adverse effects of transparency in nondemocratic systems.22 In other words, even when disclosed, politically important data may stand little chance of furthering accountability goals in the context of flawed democracies or authoritarian regimes.
Although a well-established electoral system may enable transparency-based accountability, it does not guarantee it.23 As prominent democracy scholar Larry Diamond eloquently summarizes, civic participation must go beyond the electoral cycle:
Without free, fair, and regular electoral competition, government cannot be held truly accountable to the people. But elections are not enough. Democracy, and especially liberal democracy, requires multiple avenues for “the people” to express their interests and preferences, to influence policy, and to scrutinize and check the exercise of state power continuously, in between elections as well as during them.24
Robinson and Yu thus neglect a major element that enables transparency to foster accountability—the need for participatory (electoral and nonelectoral) mechanisms. It is the combination of (publicized) transparency and institutions that promote governmental responsiveness and empower citizens to partake in public decisionmaking that leads to substantive accountability.
As Jeremy Bentham asserted two centuries ago,25 “[I]n the same proportion as it is desirable for the governed to know the conduct of their governors, is it also important for the governors to know the real wishes of the governed.”26 Bentham’s historic call for participation resonates with contemporary research demonstrating that in the absence of effective mechanisms for citizen participation beyond elections, transparency is unlikely to produce the expected results put forward by its advocates.27
If, as put by Beth Noveck, “the ability of third parties to participate is what makes open data truly transformative,”28 the existence of participatory institutions enables third parties to participate effectively. But unfortunately, to date, mechanisms of participation related to open data largely have been limited to ad hoc events in which technologists and interested parties collaborate on software-related projects (such as hackathons and competitions). These mechanisms may well prove to be effective in exploiting the expertise of third parties through the development of technologies and solutions that may serve public purposes. They do not, however, replace participatory institutions29 designed to leverage the dispersed knowledge of citizens to shape decisions that affect their lives. In the absence of these institutions that enable political agency, adaptable data is toothless.
II. Examining the Publicity and Political Agency Conditions Beyond the U.S.
As the open data movement is internationalized and propelled through multilateral efforts and donors alike,30 it becomes even more important to reflect on the meaning of adaptable data in an international context. Such an exercise, beyond widening Robinson and Yu’s analytical scope, highlights the challenges associated with open data as a vector for accountability.
Concerning the publicity condition, a first threshold requirement refers to the presence or absence of technical capabilities to process adaptable data to render it accessible to the broader public. Generally, there are a number of cases in which such techno-mediation has proven to be successful. For instance, previous research on the use of government data by third parties during the economic downturn31 has shown a number of cases in which nongovernmental actors were able to provide information on recovery measures more efficiently than governments themselves.32
But the need of such techno-mediation to make adaptable data accessible to the general public raises questions particularly in the context of developing countries, where technical capabilities to process and extract meaning from open data may be either scarce or undermobilized for civic purposes.33 In such contexts, one could hypothesize that the disclosure of government data—politically relevant or not—may well constitute an excellent artifice for governments to remain opaque while taking credit for championing transparency.
But even if we assume that the technical capacity to process data is in place, it remains only one part of the publicity equation. As discussed earlier in this Essay, in addition to the technical capacity to process adaptable data, the extent of press freedom in any given context remains crucial for determining the potential for transparency to produce accountability. For illustrative purposes, I conduct an empirical exercise to verify the state of press freedom in developed and developing countries that have recently launched open data websites.34
The results of this exercise are illustrated in Table 1 below.35
Table 1. Press Freedom in Open Data Countries
As the table above illustrates, the analysis of press freedom in countries with open data portals presents mixed results.36 While a considerable number of countries (57 percent) that have recently launched government-run open data portals have a free press, this is not the case for nearly half (43 percent) of the remaining countries, where the press is considered not free or only partially free.
In the countries with press freedom, Robinson and Yu’s argument seems to suggest that politically important adaptable data may potentially foster accountability.37 Nevertheless, in countries where press freedom is nonexistent or only partial, the interpretation of the results is not as straightforward. This highlights one of the limits of Robinson and Yu’s argument.
Countries without a free press might release uncontroversial data with little potential to enable accountability.38 In that case, press freedom is irrelevant because politically important data is not released in the first place. A second hypothesis, however, based on the publicity condition, is equally disturbing: Even for cases in which governments disclose politically important data (as Robinson and Yu advocate), there is little chance that the data and, more importantly, the respective interpretations that follow, will freely circulate within the public sphere. Finally, a third—and skeptics would argue a less likely—hypothesis is also possible: Despite the adverse context in which these initiatives take place, such a fact reveals a positive move toward increased transparency and accountability. I discuss the implications of these different hypotheses in more depth below.
I conduct a similar exercise to examine the implications of the political agency condition. As a proxy for the ability of citizens to express their preferences about policies and to decide whether to sanction or reward their leaders, I look at the state of civil liberties and political rights for the year of 2013 in each of the countries reviewed in Table 1.39 I present the results in Table 2 below.
Table 2. Civil Liberties and Political Rights in Open Data Countries
Once again, interpreting these results is far from simple. On the one hand, given research on the importance of the political agency condition, the prospects for any open data, regardless of its political importance, to advance accountability in some these countries appears grim. Indeed, without fulfilling even the minimal political agency requirements of civil liberties and political rights, there is little hope that adaptable data will foster accountability. On the other hand, however, the very existence of open data initiatives in these adverse environments may indicate a push toward greater openness, even in regimes in which accountability appears unlikely to occur.
These competing interpretations of the above analyses—that open data initiatives are likely to fail or represent the first step toward increased transparency—are not mutually exclusive, however. Indeed, the answer is more likely to fall somewhere along the continuum between these two. After all, a single policy is often designed and implemented by actors pursuing multiple goals intended to produce different effects.40 Thus, while these policies may represent government officials’ opportunistic pretense for accountability, they may also be supported by democratically minded reformers who view open data—and the current enthusiasm around it—as an opportunity to advocate for greater accountability reforms. The dismissal of these initiatives as examples of authoritarian manipulation therefore risks undermining reformers’ efforts for change.
Yet, a strong hypothesis remains: Holding all other factors constant, open data’s potential to foster accountability is proportional to the extent to which the publicity and political agency conditions are in place.
Open government data, often equated with transparency by its advocates, emerges as the new low-hanging fruit of good governance. Yu and Robinson bring substance to such a debate, highlighting the importance of the nature of data to be disclosed for accountability to be generated.
Nevertheless, the nature of the data is as relevant as the context in which this data is disclosed. In the absence of a free press, open data stands little chance of entering the public arena to foster accountability. In a similar vein, in the absence of an environment that enables citizens to hold rulers accountable, express preferences, and influence policy, little can be achieved.
As a whole, this analysis advises caution on the part of policymakers and advocates with regard to the potential of open data to foster accountability. Even when data is politically important, accounting for the publicity and political agency conditions might be a commendable reflection for a better understanding of the prospects and limits of open data.
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