Yesterday I had yet another client conversation – this time with a mid-size municipality in the north of Europe – on the topic of the economic value generated through open data. The problem we discussed is the same I highlighted in a post last year: nobody argues the potential long term value of open data but it may be difficult to maintain a momentum (and to spend time, money and management bandwidth) on something that will come to fruition in the more distant future, while more urgent problems need to be solved now, under growing budget constraints.
Faith is not enough, nor are the many examples that open data evangelists keep sharing to demonstrate value. Open data must help solve today’s problems too, in order to gain the credibility and the support required to realize future economic value.
While many agree that open data can contribute to shorter term goals, such as improving inter-agency transparency and data exchange or engaging citizens on solving concrete problems, making this happen in a more systematic way requires a change of emphasis and a change of leadership.
Emphasis must be on directing efforts – be they idea collections, citizen-.developed dashboards or mobile apps – onto specific, concrete problems that government organizations need to solve. One might argue that this is not dissimilar from having citizens offer perspectives on how they see existing issues and related solutions. But there is an important difference: what usually happens is that citizens and other stakeholders are free to use whichever data they want to use. The required change is to entice them to help governments solve problems the way governments see them. In other terms, whereas citizens would clearly remain free to come up with whichever use of any open data they deem important, they should get incentives, awards, prizes only for those uses that meet clear government requirements. Citizens would be at the service of government rather than the other way around. For those who might be worried that this advocates for an unacceptable change of responsibility and that governments are at the service of citizens and not the other way around, what I mean is that citizens should help governments serve them.
Leadership for open data initiatives should move from people dealing with communication, civic engagement and the likes, to people who are responsible for government performances and budgets. In our Open Government Maturity Model (client privileges required) published a few years ago we said that a symptom of maturity for open government is when its responsibility stays with the Chief Financial Officer rather than the Chief Information Officer or Public Information Office. Open data must become a tool to address resource and service problems, before (or alongside) been seen as a tool for transparency and economic value creation.
It is quite remarkable how almost all my inquiries on this topic are with clients who have almost come to the same conclusion, but they are often worried to make this shift as they believe they would incur political opposition by those who are firm believers of the purity of letting citizen do whatever they like with open data. These two views are not antithetic, but it is clearly an area where open data pundits should stop banging the drum of long-term value and start rolling their sleeves to sell the shorter-term value from a government perspective.