Turning Open Data into Open Government through Citizen Participation

In this post, originally published on the Government Innovators Network, MPP student Wen Hoe examines Irekia, an open government innovation in the Basque Country, as a tool to turn open data into open government through increased participation in policy-making. 

 

By Wen Hoe

What’s the point of governments sharing data?

Zoila Llempen posed this question in an earlier blog post. Her answer? Open data arms citizens with information to discuss government decisions. An actual database is only one half of the open data equation. The way government provides the information to truly engage citizens is arguably the more important half. In fact, one of the most important implications of open data is that it can transform the relationship between public servants and citizens, and even start to erode a culture of mistrust.

In short, open data is not just about transparency of data, but also about participation and collaboration. It takes citizens using the open data to lobby, to hold their governments to account, to propose new policies, for open data to move into the realm of new governance. In other words, open data opens the door to open government, transforming the citizen-government relationship.

Open data and open government are often confused with each other. The phrase “open government” was first introduced in the 1950s, a call for public accountability after little government information disclosure during WWII. However, in recent years, the two ideas have been conflated. Former President Obama’s Open Government Directive called for executive branch agencies to “publish information online in an open format.” Yet a government can provide open data on specific issues without being an open government, and an open government can be accountable to the public without utilizing technologies that make its data accessible and reusable. At its heart, open government is about accountability, and open data is data that is accessible and reusable by the public.

Open data can support open government, as long as the data is part of a wider desire for public accountability. In her blog post, Zoila draws on the case of Kenya’s Open Data Portal, which provides more than 300 primary datasets on different government topics and has had more than a half-million downloads since it was started in 2011. In this post, I hope to illustrate how open data can become open government, through the example of Irekia. Irekia is an open government innovation by the Basque Country government, which received the UN Public Service Award on fostering participation in policymaking in 2015.

Introducing Irekia: an approach to government

“In the Basque Country that I want, the citizen is an adult who is able to think, decide and take responsibility by participating in the joint construction of the country. And I want to stress this: the times when citizens were treated like children who are led by the hand, who are told what to do are over. The days when people look to political parties or public institutions to know where to walk have come to an end.”

– former President Patxi Lopez, Basque Country

The Basque Country’s Prime Minister’s Office created Irekia, or “open” in Basque, in January 2010. The Basque Country is a region in Spain, with a population of around 2.1 million (2014). In Spain’s decentralized state of autonomies, communities like the Basque Country retain significant power. For example, the Basque government is in charge of its police force, education and health, and tax collection.

Through Irekia, the Basque government aims to govern alongside citizens. It is not just about opening a direct communication channel between the government and its citizens, but also about offering opportunities for citizen involvement in policymaking.

The Irekia project’s flagship product is a web platform that publishes government data, allowing citizens to participate in the government’s decision-making processes. The web platform is in a permanent state of evolution. Thus far, the government has released three different versions of Irekia, responding to users’ needs. As part of the Irekia web platform, the government also released Open Data Euskadi in 2010, making the government public budget visible to all. In addition to Irekia the web platform, the government also introduced the Public Innovation Plan (PiP) in 2011, which provides electronic public services, also launching 15 thematic groups to further develop the PiP, a blog and YouTube channel to provide information on the project plan, and a group on LinkedIn to encourage participation.

All of these programs are grounded in changes within the civil service. Recognizing that the programs are only as good as the administrative staff that deploy the programs, the government introduced innovative workshops and trainings on blogs and other social media, encouraging Basque civil servants to utilize different channels to communicate with citizens.

Transparency, participation and collaboration

The Irekia web platform is based on three key principles, transparency, participation, and collaboration, considered key to open government.

1. Transparency

The web platform includes information about upcoming events, the Basque government’s budget, and the legislative calendar. Open Data Euskadi releases the government’s public budget, with a breakdown of how taxes are being spent. Since April 2010, it has provided 2,000 datasets, with a monthly download rate of 600.

Indeed, the government publishes raw data in reusable formats, rather than documents, which enables citizens to employ the data as they see fit. All the data is licensed by Creative Commons, so that citizens do not need government authorization to use the data. All information is published, following the principle of “better on-offer than on-demand.”

The government further recognizes that internal change is key to real transparency. It argues that transparency is a four-stage process:

  1. Transparency as a value: Transparency should be recognized as a value in itself. That means publishing clear information that is easy to understand, while also publishing all information, including sensitive information that may not present the government in a positive light.
  2. Transparency as an attitude: Basque civil servants should see transparency as a value, and recognize that any public action will be transparent.
  3. Transparency as a behavior: Every public servant has to act with transparency, making policies that are accountable, and communicating information with citizens.
  4. Transparency as a routine: Transparency should be integrated into the system, that is, procedure, laws, and technology.

As such, Basque civil servants are provided with training and introduced to communities of practice, ensuring that transparency as a value filters down throughout the public service.

2. Participation

Transparent information provision is key to citizen participation. Government proposals on its policies, laws or decrees are published online, and the public provides input. Citizens can create profiles on Irekia, and then provide comments and vote on government proposals. For instance, citizens were encouraged to comment on the draft law on transparency and good government. The legislative calendar is also made public, so that citizens know when government initiatives are being discussed and can participate. The government also posts surveys to gauge citizen support for specific proposals, for instance on improving water management or climate change measures. Irekia also has a matching mobile application, where citizens pose questions to be addressed by local representatives.

To encourage citizens to utilize the services provided by Irekia, the government is working with activist groups, along with entrepreneurs, innovators and non-government organizations, encouraging them to utilize the data.

3. Collaboration

Collaboration is the final and perhaps most difficult step in open government. While methods for collaboration are still being developed, citizens can suggest their own “grassroots” proposals. These proposals are reviewed and sent to relevant people within the government, with the aim of integrating them into existing proposals or initiatives, or indeed inspiring new proposals.

A review of Irekia shows not only multiple proposals that citizens have introduced that citizens have voted on, but also the government’s frequent response to both proposals and comments.

Lessons for open government

The Irekia and Euskadi web platforms are not just open data platforms, but deliberately seek to strengthen citizen participation for greater accountability. The Basque government’s initiative is an example of how technological platforms, matched by civil service training, can facilitate open paths towards citizen engagement.

At the same time, are citizens effectively using the available technology? For instance, many surveys have relatively few citizen responses, with some surveys only receiving votes from three or four citizens. What this points to is the need for civic awareness education to match existing innovations. In other words, open government is a two-way street, with efforts for accountability on the government’s side and a stronger culture of participation on citizens’ side.

 

 

Wen Hoe is a student in the MPP program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She graduated with a bachelor degree in History and International Relations from Tufts University, and her work has mainly been in climate change and water and sanitation.

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