This post was originally published on The Democratic Society website.
It’s always good to read about open data and democracy in a mainstream newspaper , but often the focus of the pieces are too narrow, and it was in this case. While exploring broadly the idea of apps for democracy and open data, the focus was on voting as the main means of democratic engagement, without exploring how else citizens can engage in politics or policy making, and the article didn’t touch upon how to help citizens understand and use the data that is being made openly available.
At the Democratic Society, we believe that people should be engaged meaningfully in decision making more substantially than through the exercising of the right to vote taking place once every five years. While voting is a crucial part of a representative democracy, it is not the end of democratic engagement. Once elected, governments should be actively listening to, and working with, citizens, to develop policies and services.
The reasons for this go beyond just a democratic imperative – although this is obviously important – to the fact that it provides opportunity for public officials to tap into the collective expertise of the public; gaining insight to which they would not otherwise have access.
There are a range of activities that local and national governments carry out to listen to, and engage with, citizens. These range from the standard consultation model – in which a government department or body releases a survey, asking a set of questions around a set of proposals for either a policy or service – through to much more hands on approaches, like participatory budgeting. In addition, there are many other methods and approaches described in the open policy making manual.
If governments want to move away from the criticisms often levelled at consultation and engagement exercises – one of which is that consultations are often carried out as a tick box exercise, rather than a genuine attempt at hearing from the public – they could do far worse than consider how to ensure that consultation and engagement attempts are genuinely informed by relevant data, which is released under an open license, and presented in a way that allows citizens to explore it and understand it.
We are seeing an ever increasing number of government data sets being released openly – as any quick look at data.gov.uk will tell you. And this release of open government data is often held up as a public good, and as a democratic good. The evidential narrative being that this open data allows people to hold governments to account, and to better understand what government is doing.
However, what this narrative fails to address is that the vast majority of people don’t know how to use the data that is released, don’t know that this data is being released, and either wouldn’t have the time or inclination to use this data. This means that the main beneficiaries of open data are those individuals, journalists, and companies who have significant data skills – which is not the vast majority of citizens.
This evidential narrative also fails to address that the fact that the data sets being released are those which government choses to release; either because they are comparatively easy to release, there are existing business cases to justify the cost of organising and releasing the data, or as a result of lobbying from the open data community or big organisations. While there are mechanisms that exist for individuals to request data sets be made openly available, these routes do not seem well known to many who would benefit from using public open data.
So how can we make open data more useful and valuable for actual citizens?
One thing that would be really transformational would be for the change we are seeing around increasing citizen participation and engagement in policy making, to be combined with the open data movement.
As local and national governments engage or consult citizens on policy proposals or changes to service delivery, I’d like to see like to see these bodies releasing open data sets relevant to the issues or services they are consulting upon. And I’d like to see opportunities to be made available for citizens to explore the data that don’t require them to have technological skills, or to know much about open data full stop.
At a local government level, this may include releasing the number of times a bridge is used by pedestrians and bicycles at various times over the course of a day, when consulting about whether access to a bridge should be widened. This data release could then be accompanied by a small event, inviting local residents and other citizens who use the route to come and explore the data, alongside civil servants and other interested individuals with relevant data skills, providing citizens with the opportunity to both learn some additional skills, and to gain additional insight to inform their opinions to respond to the engagement exercise. It would also act as a way of raising awareness of open data to communities and groups who have not previously come across it.
At a national level, running these events may be more challenging – it would be expensive and difficult to run events in all possible locations across the UK. However it shouldn’t be too onerous to go so far as to release data that have been used to inform the policy proposals, or are more broadly relevant to the consultation.
These proposals would result in open data sets that are embedded and connected more strongly to the process of helping to inform public decision making, rather than just data sets that are easy to release, or seen as desirable by individuals and organisations external to government. This can then allow more informed and honest conversations to take place, resulting in citizens who can be more effectively engaged in consultation activities, and civil servants and elected representatives having more useful and informed responses from which to build any policy proposals or service design changes.
That, to my mind, is one way open data could certainly benefit democracy.