Using Open Data to Rebuild Trust

Opening government data has the potential to build trust between citizens and the state while pushing for better public outcomes.

April 19, 2018 | By Madison Suh, Student Analyst

On April 9th, the Beeck Center, in partnership with the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance, convened over 60 government and industry leaders at Georgetown University to discuss the relationship between data, trust, and governance. The center has been focused on the opportunity for leveraging data for social good, and was pleased to convene this event as the final in a three-part series on the future of open data.

Many governments have committed to open data policies and practices, yet there is a need for a more nuanced discussion on data governance. With this goal in mind, the center invited practitioners and leaders to join a dinner and policy discussion on how best to govern data and build trust.

One of the first questions guiding the April 9th conversation was whether the opening of government is an appropriate response to mitigate diminishing levels of trust between the citizen and the state. The panel launched into the discussion with a brief history on the evolution of open data. The open data movement began with the massive release of data into the public domain, where data had previously been largely unstructured and unmined. The first wave was the purposeful release and utilization of data in ways that benefitted citizens and built critical infrastructure. This development was followed by the mobilization of citizen feedback in response to governance structures and services. Finally, government has focused on how to respond to citizen feedback in order to deliver better outcomes; it is this domain that offers an avenue to build trust.

With trust in governance institutions at historic lows, governments need to prioritize closing the feedback loop between citizens and the state. As Christopher Wilson, Visiting Fellow at the Beeck Center, said, “there has to be a certain amount of trust that data is being interpreted in good faith and used for their intended purpose.” Panelists Sanjay Pradhan, CEO, Open Government Partnership; Beth Noveck, Professor, NYU Tandon School of Engineer; and William Eggers, Executive Director, Deloitte’s Center for Governance insights urged the audience to have hope in the power of data to restore citizen’s trust in government and offered examples, including: data prediction capabilities that impact policy decisions and resource allocation; the creation of data commons that prioritize transparency; and a government-sponsored platform for blended public and private data. Data pipelines could reduce friction between the private and public sectors, while customary experience principles could be applied to curate and visualize data in accessible ways, and untapped data sets could be used to further the development of products, services, and research.

Various themes emerged from the event, offering key insights and suggested approaches on data governance:

Shift Culture to Breed Trust

The panelists suggested that responsive and responsible use of data will drive an incremental culture shift in how data is governed and used to build trust. Data governance is essential at every step of the data life cycle. The transparency of processes — an honest assessment of both opportunities and challenges — is critical to foster institutional readiness and responsible stewardship of data. To build trust, there must be a cultural shift towards innovation and public entrepreneurship, with co-creation between the private and public sectors. However, panelists noted that shifting culture is “hand-to-hand combat,” particularly “where powerful elites benefit.” Building a climate of trust will require coordination between government and civil society and a balance of the risks and benefits of how data is collected, analyzed, and used.

Prepare for Future Obstacles

It was made clear from the discussion that the greatest promises for the future of data governance, if left unmoderated, could also pose some of the greatest risks and challenges. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning, if left unchecked, could prompt ethical and normative challenges for the future of democracy, including privacy and cyber risks. Both individual risks (privacy, security, and personal safety) and organizational risks (confidentiality, liability, and intellectual property) are active concerns.

Engage Citizens As Participants

Above all, the panelists said, governance models should be citizen-centric, so that citizens are heard and responded to. The panelists stressed the importance of citizen participation and state response to foster and emphasize a trusting relationship. For example, participatory budgeting enables direct decision-making powers for citizens to influence policy outcomes within the government. This is a tool to build trust in government, as it has done in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mobile phones and town halls were used to create a line item vote and increase citizen participation.

Rebuild Trust Collectively

According to one of the event’s participants, the open data movement requires a broader range of communication and analytical skills as well as the ability to assess the risks, benefits, and limitations of data usage, access, protection, and sharing. Multi-sector stakeholders, including industry, academia, and NGO’s, need to be part of this process to uphold standards.

One of the outputs of our three-dinner series with a group of multi-sector data leaders from across government, academia, civil society, and the private sector is a forthcoming Chief Data Officer playbook co-published by the Beeck Center and Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights. The publication focuses on a range of key aspects of the open data discourse, including the history and evolution of the role of Chief Data Officers in the government; the use of data as an asset for public policy; the translation of data into storytelling tools; and the evaluation of data ownership, sharing, privacy, and stewardship.

Ensuring the future of open data will require all actors to share a greater sense of accountability. In addition to the foundational principle of doing no harm, there is an inherent responsibility to do good.

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