Putting a dollar value on clean water, stable markets, the quality of schooling or access to the judiciary is no easy task. Each of these elements of society, however, are to some extent related to and enabled by open government.
If we think about how the fundamental democratic principles established centuries ago extend today purely in terms of the abstraction of transparency, the "business value" of open government isn't always immediately clear, at least with respect to investment or outcomes.
Transparency and accountability are core to how we think about government of, by and for the people, where a polity elects representative government. When budgets are constrained, however, city managers, mayors, controllers and chief information officers question the value of every single spending decision. (Or at least they should.)
It's that context, of course, that's driving good, hard questions about the business case for open government. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, said in 2011, at the launch of the Open Government Partnership in New York City, said that increased transparency into a state's finances and services directly relates to the willingness of the businesses and other nations to invest in a country.
That's the kind of thinking that has driven the World Bank to open up its data, to give people access to more information about where spending is happening and what those funds are spent upon. While transparency into government budgets varies immensely around the world, from frequently updated portals to paper records filed in local county offices, technology has given states new opportunities to be more accountable -- or to be held accountable, by civic media and the emerging practice of data journalism.
The challenges with releasing spending data, however, are manifold, from quality assurance to the (limited) costs of publishing to access to making it comprehensible to taxpayers through visualizations and calculators.
People in and outside of government are working to mitigate these issues, from using better visualization tools to adopting Web-based online platforms for publishing. The process of cleaning and preparing data to be published itself has returns for people inside of government who need access to it. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, on average, government workers spend 19% of their days simply looking for information.
In other words, opening information government to citizens also can mean it's more available to government itself.
Organizing and establishing governance practices for data, even if some of it will never be published online, also has significant returns. Chicago chief data officer Brett Goldstein established probability curves for violent crime, explained John Tolva, the chief technology officer of the city of Chicago, when we talked in 2011. Since then, "we’re trying to do that elsewhere, uncovering cost savings, intervention points, and efficiencies,” he said.
“We have multiple phases for how we roll out data internally, starting with working with the business owner," said Goldstein, in an interview. "We figure out how we’ll get it out of the transactional database. After that, we determine if it’s clean, if it’s verified, and if we can sign off on it technically.”
Tolva makes the business case for open data by identifying four areas that support investment, including an economic rationale.
- Accountability of the work force
- Business building
- Urban analytics
After New York City moved to consolidate and clean its regulatory data, city officials were able to apply predictive data analytics to save lives and money. According to Mike Flowers, the chief analytics officer of NYC, the city achieved:
- A five-fold return on the time of building inspectors looking for illegal apartments
- An increase in the rate of detection for dangerous buildings that are highly likely to result in firefighter injury or death
- The discovery of more than twice as many stores selling bootlegged cigarettes
- A five-fold increase in the detection of business licenses being flipped
California's recent budget woes coincided with unprecedented demand for government to be more and efficient online. The state connected citizens to e-services with social media. Both California Unemployment Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles were able to deliver better services online without additional cost.
“You can tweet @CA_EDD and get answers like how long until you get a check, where to go on the website or job fairs,” said Carolyn Lawson, the former deputy director for the technology services governance division in the eServices Office of California, in an interview. “I don’t think the creators of Twitter thought it would be a helpdesk for EDD.”
These kinds of efforts are far from the only places where there are clear returns for investments. A world away from big cities and states in the United States and urban data analytics, the World Bank found the ROI in open government through civic participation and mobile phones. Mobile participatory budgeting helped raise tax revenues in Congo, combining technology, civic participation and systems thinking to give citizens a voice in government.
“Beyond creating a more inclusive environment, the beauty of the project in South Kivu is that citizen participation translates into demonstrated and measurable results on mobilizing more public funds for services for the poor,” said Boris Weber, team leader for ICT4Gov at the World Bank Institute for Open Government, in an interview in Washington. “This makes a strong case when we ask ourselves where the return of investment of open government approaches is.”
Alexander B. Howard is the Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent for O'Reilly Media, where he writes about the intersection of government, the Internet and society.