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OPINION: Why should governments open up their data?
By: Ani, Nwachukwu Agwu
RUNNING 21st century governments by the “old rules” is reinforcing information asymmetry, inefficiency in public service, inequality and ultimately poverty. In 2016, the eight richest people in the world had as much money as the bottom 50 per cent of humanity – that’s three-and-a-half billion people. And of those eight, six were infotech billionaires.
The world can no longer feign indifference on the pricelessness of public data in this age. Like these infotech billionaires, governments are stewards of public data and money. Their responsibility is allocating same to priority sectors in the society and policy-making. If data is so priceless, why then is the unsustainable concentration of power and wealth (data) in the hands of few individuals and government?
Technological advancement such as computer, internet and airplane has not only demystified global challenges (e.g. transportation) to the point that one could fly from New York to London in six hours or less; technology has made governance and public policy increasingly participatory and interactive. It is believed that such interaction will ultimately result in more democratization of decision-making, getting citizens more involved in the allocation of state resources for public good. Democracy requires transparent decisions; so that citizens are aware of what is decided and how much money is being spent on which purposes.
In developing economies, e.g. Nigeria, one phenomenon driving political instability and economic stagnation is corruption. Stakeholders are unanimous that the incidence of corruption is unacceptably high and that open government – opening up government data and public processes, is the antidote. The importance of data-driven transparency is indisputable in combating corruption because corruption thrives in atmospheres of opaqueness and secrecy. Incontestably, transparency counteracts corruption and sharp practices in government circles.
A fundamental concept for understanding open government is information asymmetry. Information asymmetry is a situation in which one party has more information than another, for instance, when a government has more information than its constituents. One of the reasons why governments open their data is to reduce information asymmetry, but completely overcoming this is often not realistic. Somebody who is inside the system on a daily basis will always have more knowledge than outsiders do. However, easy access and a clear presentation of information are often necessary. By that, we can see a clearer picture, but completely bridging the information asymmetry is virtually impossible.
The second point why we should open up government data is civic participation and engagement. Among other forms of centralized governments, one distinctive characteristic of democracy is citizens’ voice or civic participation. Citizens can never be able to properly engage their elected or public officials without data or information about what is happening inside government institutions. World over, a military dictator can always build roads; primary healthcare centres; potable water supply; etc., but at any instance, military dictators lack legitimacy because they rule by the barrel of a gun. Ruling by the barrel of a gun is a measure of primitiveness.
Article 21 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads that: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Fundamentally, access to relevant public data inevitably guide electorates during elections, guaranteeing credible electoral outcomes among nations. Undoubtedly, under democracies where voices are present, human rights are best protected.
So there is relationship between open government, legitimacy of governments and trust. The importance of easy access to public data as a way of building trust is captured in open government ambitions. Commitments to open government should show that governments are not hiding anything from citizens. In the circumstance, the public can see how the government is functioning, and influence its working where necessary. For example, viewing how budget is spent and thereafter suggesting alternative ways of spending the budget better.
Challenging the status quo
For five decades (1962–2011), Nigeria operated a horrible law – Official Secret Act, which provided for the protection of official information from public interaction or scrutiny. The Act imposed restrictions upon public servants concerning disclosure of certain “privileged” information. Thus, for 50 years, Nigerian political environment was more or less a “black box” – citizens living in information blackout.
In the same year (2011) that Open Government Partnership (OGP) was launched, Nigerian government enacted a revolutionary law – Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), providing for free access of public information to citizens. The act also provides for the protection of personal privacy, protection of serving public officers from adverse consequences when they disclose certain kinds of official information without authorization. The Nigerian FOIA is considered a game-changer in the country’s long push for openness, transparency and accountability.
Global efforts at opening up government-controlled data for public participation and engagement birthed a multilateral initiative – OGP. In September 2011, on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting, Heads of State from 8 founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration. The OGP aims to secure concrete commitments from national and sub-national governments to open up government data and processes, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance among member states.
How civic organisations are disrupting service delivery using FOIA and OGP
For many years in Nigeria, corruption and cultures of opacity meant that resources meant for development were frittered away. According to a UN report, roughly $4.6bn is spent on bribes in Nigeria each year. Poor transparency and accountability have allowed corruption to flourish, but these civil society groups are trying to change the opaque environment.
Empowered by the provisions of OGP and FIOA, governments are under intense pressure to intensify fights against corruption; sharing more information about the way federal ministers or commissioners are managing public resources and increasing civil participation in public decision-making. A host of civic organisations: Follow The Money, Tracka, PPDC, SERAP etc are harnessing new technologies to strengthen governance especially at the grassroots. The activities of these above-named organisations are examples of how citizens (activists) can be part of the solution of nation building in a fragile or failing democracy. Therefore to increase civic participation, promote transparency, and strengthen accountability; governments must open up public data – hitherto administered in secrecy, for public perusal, consumption and ownership.
This article was first published in Apolitico, United Kingdom, in December 2018. It was authored by Ani Nwachukwu Agwu, Rural Development Specialist at Connected Development/Follow The Money, Abuja. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.