Open data's power to transform citizen participation, policy formation, and public sector innovation

  • GCC government are yet to implement right to information laws and engage civil society and academia in efforts
  • Governmental bodies currently lack education and training courses for developing more effective open data programs

While the use of technology is a common denominator between Arab open data initiatives and those in other countries, leadership, social, cultural, and institutional factors have negatively influenced the effectiveness of open data initiatives in the GCC. According to a new Tahseen Consulting report, most GCC open data initiatives are severely lacking in comparison to open data programs in OECD countries.

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The report outlines a comprehensive framework and best practices that Arab governments can use to improve open data initiatives and bring them into alignment with good practice from OECD countries. Any information such as transit schedules, hospital locations, school enrollment data, birth statistics, traffic data, or weather trends might qualify as an open government initiative. 

By focusing on low priority government activities, GCC open data initiatives rarely provide additional information that is not already available via traditional media or institutional websites.

While the embrace of open government to complement public sector service provision is still in its infancy in the GCC, there is much expectation that open data will have a transformative impact on citizen participation, policy formation, and the way public sector entities conduct business. GCC government have not enacted right to information laws, fail to engage civil society and academia in efforts, and lack education and training courses for developing more effective open data programs, the report says.

Relative to OECD countries, most GCC governments focus on national data portals rather than regional and city initiatives.

Drawing on examples from OECD countries, Tahseen Consulting’s report Is Open Data Leading to Better Government in the GCC? Identifies several policy, implementation, and data improvements that GCC governments can undertake to make the most of regional open government and data initiatives.

“There are many examples of open government and data best practices from the OECD countries that need to be applied more effectively in the GCC,” said Wes Schwalje, Chief Operating Officer of Tahseen Consulting and author of the report. “Use of technology is not a substitute for deeper reform towards transparency, accountability, and cooperation. 

Current open data initiatives must go beyond releasing data on non-sensitive political topics towards the release of data which involves the public in a participatory dialogue that can shape decision making, policies, and public service delivery.

How GCC Open Data Initiatives Compare to OECD Benchmarks

Although several GCC countries have invested heavily in open government and data programs and establishing e-government authorities, Tahseen Consulting’s research finds that GCC government open data programs may not be adequately meeting citizen needs. GCC governments must adapt to new citizen expectations for participation and engagement, co-production of government services, crowdsourcing solutions to societal issues, and increased transparency and accountability.

GCC governments must respond to evolving citizen expectations by showing clear senior level commitment to open government and data programs, establishing federal implementation guidelines, and ensuring sufficient resources.

GCC governments must become much more specific in establishing guidelines and data standards for open government and data initiatives.

Walid Aradi, Chief Executive Officer of Tahseen Consulting, says “most federal guidelines in the GCC remain at a general level and only outline basic principles without specifying how government entities should implement open government and data programs and what types of data should be released.”

Tahseen Consulting has developed an Open Government and Data Diagnostic Tool to help GCC governments adopt more effective practices to make the most of open government and data initiatives. Tahseen Consulting’s diagnostic tool provides a comparative framework that enables entities to determine specific organizational changes that need to be made in order to reach higher stages of open government and data maturity and compare their organization’s maturity level to other entities in the region.

Insights to Help GCC Governments Succeed With Open Government and Data Initiatives in Response to Increased Citizen Expectations

Lack of guidance on how to implement open government and data good practices and regional governance traditions have led to several public sector entities introducing politically low impact programs that fail to enhance transparency, citizen participation in decision making, and collaboration in public service delivery. “Technology often solidifies existing institutional practices rather than changing long standing organizational behaviors,” said Schwalje. 

Bringing Arab open government and data initiatives in line with the spirit of programs in OECD countries will require reforms at the national level as well as substantial organizational changes at many entities.

Tahseen Consulting’s research identifies several ways in which GCC governments can align open government and data programs with similar initiatives in OECD countries.

Enact Right to Information Laws. Many Arab countries do not have right-to-information laws, don’t permit citizens to request data, and have no mechanisms via which to handle citizen requests for data. In several countries, right to Information laws will need to be passed to overcome a prevailing culture of secrecy that limits citizen access to information.

Enact Personal Data Protection Laws. The principle of a right to privacy of personal information is codified in some Arab constitutions and contained in laws that require consent for collection and processing of personal data However, very few countries have federal laws that protect personal information. Many of the data privacy policies in the region have broad clauses related to taking measures to prevent use and disclosure of information but do not specify particular methods of compliance. Updated personal data protection laws are required to reduce citizen concerns about how their personal data is used.

Increase Civil Society Engagement. There is little evidence which suggests that civil society or information technology professional groups are being actively engaged by governments in forming open government and data strategies, identifying data requirements, or in increasing citizen use of open data. Open data initiatives are generally designed to broadcast data rather than create a genuine dialogue about what data might be required by the community. There is a significant role that civil society can play in defining the types of data citizens might find useful and in analyzing publicly available data.

Establish Regional and City Initiatives. The majority of entities with open government and data initiatives are federal ministries, authorities, or agencies. More emphasis on creating regional and city initiatives is required to ensure local needs are being met.

Increase Academic Participation. There is very little evidence that the academic community and academic institutions publish open data as a part of fulfilling their research mandates. For example, grant guidelines for receiving funding from national research funds rarely contain stipulations to publicize data which could be useful to other researchers. An institutional research culture which supports sharing of data must be instilled to promote higher impact research.

Improve the Education and Training System. At the higher education level, many public and private universities offer computer and information science degrees which address concepts related to open government and data. While degree programs cover technological subjects, many programs fail to sufficiently provide more extensive training on areas such as data science, visualization, legal issues related to open data, and open data entrepreneurship.