Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Politics, big business & dark data: reflections from OGP Dublin

OGP Europe Regional Meeting

This article first appeared here 

The Open Government Partnership roadshow rolled into the breathtaking grounds of Dublin Castle last week for its European Regional Meeting, with many diehards having themselves trekked form the Asia leg in Bali just days before. 

On the agenda were multiple themes but what stood out for me were three areas which together will do much to determine the impact of OGP on real life governance for good or ill. Despite those challenges, however, the glass remains half full and it’s incumbent on all of us to act as well as argue.


The meeting took place amidst a scandal which had claimed the scalp of an Irish Justice Minister who, it was alleged, had presided over the leaking of sensitive police data which had exposed whistleblowers within the police service. The relevance of the scandal was not lost on any of the Irish participants, either in the form of Minister for Public Engagement and Reform Brendan Howlin, nor his civil society counterparts.

In the case of the civil society groups they wanted to highlight what they perceived as the Irish Government’s willingness to take international plaudits for openness while intentionally stifling it at home. Their target was the fees the Irish Government had introduced which, at EUR15 per Freedom of Information request was already reducing citizens’ opportunities to hold their leaders to account. Minister Howlin responded angrily to one questioner who invited the international panel to offer their words of corrective advice to his government, denying that there were any plans to raise charges still further and citing the economic crisis as the principal reason for the fees.

Taking those exchanges along with the argument advanced by UK Minister Francis Maude, that there was a constant struggle between reformers and spoilers within government; and the documented trend identifiedby the Independent Reporting Mechanism of some States effectively instrumentalising their OGP membership for PR purposes while acting to reduce scope for citizen engagement at home the political scale of the challenge looms large. Signing accords is one thing, but fundamentally changing political culture and the bureaucracy that depends on it is quite another.

Big business

The larger players of the private sector were well represented here. Google, Microsoft, IBM and others sent delegates who in many cases played a prominent role, including a session aimed at strengthening their role within OGP. Each underlined their firm commitment to the principles of openness and transparency, while being genuinely excited by the role that corporates could play in delivering data and the tools with which to empower citizens to use it.

Yet this session, together with exchanges between business folk and others elsewhere, was disappointing if only for the lack of coherence in approach. In a side session Dejan Cvetković, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft in Central and Eastern Europe, had made the case for private sector led open data; but had to concede that this would only be likely where the data itself could turn a commercial value, which likely ruled out information on care for the elderly or other socially important areas.

Chris Taggart of OpenCorporates was also quick to apply a needle to the corporate balloon by questioning why it was that the commercial rights of those tools and that data had to be retained by the firms themselves. Going further, he demonstrated how data his organisation had collected rather suggested that it might be an idea for business to shine a light on its own commitment to transparency, with a data visualisation of Goldman Sachs’ banking interests. It seems the Cayman Islands have particularly welcoming banks. And almost inevitably Google’s tax arrangements in Europe came under fire too. Real accountability meant real change, argued Taggart, and doing the bare minimum required by law just didn’t cut it.

Dark data 

Finally for me the challenge least responded to by OGP thus far is that of the sinister uses that some elements of the State can put information towards. Smari McCarthy, of the International Modern Media Institute was joined by Irina Balychevsky of the Open Knowledge Foundation to discuss what an Orwellian threat might look like if proper safeguards are not in place.

The Snowden revelations had completely undermined, said McCarthy, any sense of meaningful checks and balances on State security services in the advanced economies, while the continued practice of locking up journalists and human rights activists in OGP countries like Azerbaijan underlined the potential of the threat where the idea of accountable government remains a distant prospect.

Glass half full

There was much criticism of OGP at this conference. In addition to the political challenges facing reformers within Governments, doubts were expressed about the extent to which the structures of the initiative were conducive to genuine accountability among peers.

And yet, and yet.

I was left with the very strong impression that it was down to those same voices pointing out the problems to do something about it. People reasonably asked why the raw data behind the Independent Reporting Mechanism had not been used to its full extent by civil society to ask awkward questions. Looking at this excellent breakdown by Alan Hudson of Global Integrity it strikes me that in many ways the data is more powerful than the narrative reports themselves.

And for those of us in other initiatives associated with open government, such as Making All Voices Count, there are opportunities too. The OGP recently announced their Open Government Awards, aimed at highlighting a practice that “…expands and sustains Citizen Engagement to improve government policies and services”.

Yet only Governments are permitted to nominate – the door is closed for civil society to do so. So we’re thinking about doing something similar but from the bottom up; watch this space – and let us know your own ideas too.