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Government Transparency Sites: Moving into the 21st Century

BY David Eaves | Monday, September 10 2012

A few weeks ago the Italian government launched OpenCoesione, a website dedicated to sharing financial data regarding European Union-funded projects in Italy. I’ve been sneaking looks at it from time to time and it has me thinking about this and similar government transparency websites.

OpenCoesione, which approximately translates to OpenCohesion, is not really an open data portal like a data.gov or data.gov.uk. It’s a more focused site whose purpose is to educate on a specific issue, budget allocations, rather than to make data available. In this regard it is more akin to recovery.gov than data.gov.

There is, in my mind, a great deal to like about these projects. Their main goal is not to enable a thousand apps to bloom. Rather, it is to outline how vast sums of money are being spent, in a manner that is understandable to the general public and yet available to experts — via open data — for greater scrutiny.

What makes these sites exciting for me is that they represent a genuine effort by governments to recognize how an online medium should be used, even if in a narrow context. These sites are never going to attract a million page views, and I don’t think they should be judged by that standard. What they are really doing is replacing the linear, often opaque, and almost always boring PDF or printed reports that detail how a program is delivered. A site that allows one to explore how money is spent is far more likely to engage since, as Edward Tufte notes, it allows the user to find something that interests them and to start there. In this regard, the various maps and charts are not mere eye candy. They offer a variety of launch pads that can appeal to a diverse audience.

Second, sites like OpenCoesione, much like the US Government’s recovery.gov, have policy and communications goals. In America’s case, the goal was to show that Recovery Act money was being spent effectively and was having an impact across the country. For OpenCoesione the goal is to show how money is being distributed around the country. Italy is fraught with regional divisions. The organization that runs OpenCoesione, the Department for Development and Economic Cohesion, is a sort of economic development body with a mandate to help depressed parts of the country (read, the South) catch up with other regions.

Don’t be surprised to hear me advocate that a transparency site should have a policy or communications goal. Governments should have goals. It is one of the things we task them to do. Having a site that is explicit about its goals is actually liberating since it makes it easier to also develop an axis or set of criteria by which to assess them. The open data from OpenCoesione could be used for any number of studies that assess how effectively the money is at meeting the department for Development and Economic Cohesion’s goals. Of course, it can also be used to challenge whether their goals — or very existence — is worthwhile. This is precisely the types of debates that every government, and democracy needs.

Third, sites like OpenCoesione will, I believe, be a boon for two groups. The first group will be composed of researchers and journalists. The second group is public servants. This is because the European Structural Fund spending reports shared by OpenCoesione were frequently scattered across the government, making a coherent view difficult, if not impossible without a great deal of work. For researchers and journalists this means less time cobbling together reports from disparate projects so more time can be dedicated to testing the validity of the data and its implications. For public servants, the government is hoping it will prevent duplication and improve coordinating.

“The accessibility of this data on a unique portal,” one public servant told techPresident, “should encourage local administrations to compare their development strategies and maybe learn from successful projects implemented elsewhere.”

This is precisely what you want: resources internal and external to the government using the same data to make decisions.

What is particularly profound about this last item is that it demonstrates a business case for transparency. Yes, few politicians are probably excited about the prospect of journalists and academics poring over project data to find duplication of resources or other problems. But their assessments will lead to better outcomes in the long term. And if this portal can help the different levels of government, as well as the different silos within each level of government, coordinate better, then it could end up paying for itself many times over. That’s a type of return on investment that a lot of governments can wrap their heads around. If some success can be demonstrated on this front, persuading governments that transparency makes sense both for credibility and governance might be easier when they also see it makes financial sense.