Where is transparency in the hype cycle?

Development fashions go through predictable stages. At first, breathless blog posts proclaim the idea: budget support, microfinance, laptops. Soon, governments and funders are jumping over themselves to adopt the idea while wise commentators note that it is not the answer to everything. In stage three, the idea falters and the proponents bleat “but we never said it was the answer to everything”.

Gartner, a consulting firm, describes a similar ‘hype cycle’ in technology. New technologies are subject to an initial flurry of enthusiasm (driverless cars!), followed by disillusionment (bitcoin?). Some overcome this and rise towards a ‘plateau of productivity’. Others end up on the scrap heap.

So where is transparency in the development hype cycle?

Transparency is an old idea. The first budget was published (or carved in stone) in Ancient Greece, 2,500 years ago. Elected officials in Athens were subject to a public audit at the end of their terms in office. The absolute monarchs of France kept their finances a closely guarded secret, but eventually opened up when they saw that Britain and the Netherlands were able to tax and borrow more.

What is new about transparency is the volume of data being published. DFID was the first organization to publish to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) five years ago; now there are nearly 400 IATI publishers, who between them have published over 300,000 activities. The World Bank’s open data initiative, launched in 2010, covers over 200,000 documents and 200 datasets.

If gigabytes were an indicator of impact, open data would be a mature technology already.

The mood in the sector, however, is more cautious. We often hear that open data does not equal transparency, transparency does not equal accountability, and accountability does not equal development. The World Development Report 2016 notes that digital technology is subject to the same elite capture and control as other technologies.

It is easy to respond: “We never said transparency would cure everything”. That is true, but misses the point. The slow uptake of data published to IATI and other open data initiatives IS disappointing. We know of a few countries that are importing IATI data into their systems (including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Myanmar) but have little idea how they are using it.

The problem is not limited to developing countries. In a speech in 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron called for an “army of armchair auditors” to hold government to account. That hasn’t happened. Ben Worthy, a researcher at Birkbeck College in London, explains why: the data still isn’t good enough; few people have the time or the skills to dig into it; and even they don’t know what to do with their findings.

But the argument for transparency doesn’t rely on an army of auditors. It just takes a few Special Forces. In Slovakia, a group of teachers queried why the Ministry of Education had spent 9,900 euros on flowers, leading to a full procurement review. The UK’s parliamentary expenses scandal was uncovered by a small group of journalists. Our experience of working with IATI publishers is that the act of publications helps them revamp their systems and communicate better internally, even before outsiders get involved.

The story of Kenya’s Open Data Initiative is illuminating. It was launched to great fanfare in 2011, but soon floundered: its champions in government left, the data wasn’t used as expected and ministries stopped updating their data. It’s difficult to put the transparency genie back in the bottle, however. Initiatives like Open Duka and Code4Kenya tried to use the data, and in 2015 the government relaunched the initiative as part of a ‘National Partnership for the Data Revolution’.

Critics accuse Kenya, Brazil and Mexico of using open data to distract from corruption in other parts of government. Even if true, that is still a success: it means that transparency is becoming entrenched as a democratic norm, like free elections or the right to education. We don’t expect elections to solve serious problems of governance or accountability by themselves. We shouldn’t expect open data to do so either.

That is why I argue that transparency and open data are in the ‘slope of enlightenment’ in the hype cycle. Techno-optimism has given way to realism. Transparency helps governments function better, but won’t fix them when they fail. The World Development Report 2016 concludes that:

“When analogue complements to digital investments are absent, the development impact will often be disappointing. But when countries build strong analogue foundations, they will reap ample digital dividends – in faster growth, more jobs, and better services”.

Rupert Simons
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