From June 19 – 21, I travelled to Limerick to attend the 5th Transparency Research Conference. It is jointly organised by the University of Limerick and the University of Baltimore in the USA, in association with the universities of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Makarere, Uganda. Over two days, we heard about fascinating research projects covering transparency, open data and accountability from different parts of the world. I was presenting on transparency, open data and accountability in Benin and Tanzania. Here are my three key takeaways:
- There is great appetite for more evidence-based work. Transparency and open data initiatives have without doubt generated a lot of enthusiasm across the board in the past few years. The disclosure of more information by a wide range of decision makers has been particularly welcome by researchers and analysts, as it represented a wealth of new material. But in light of political events in the US and Europe in particular, there is also growing concern on how to keep this momentum going when efforts seem to be waning and evidence of impact is scarce.Transparency research was specifically highlighted as being absolutely critical for two reasons. First, to counter balance some of the post-fact narratives of the world we now live in and to build trust in data published in open formats. Second, to provide thorough and detailed accounts of what works and what does not. This means that lessons can be learnt, shared and acted upon.
- Transparency and open data are critical to develop more effective and accountable governments. But one does not automatically lead to the other. An increasing amount of data is being made available by a growing number of actors across the globe, mostly through online registries and open platforms. Putting information out on the internet does not equate making it accessible to people. It was particularly interesting to see that fairly similar technical, political and institutional barriers were identified across different case studies from the Netherlands, Tanzania, and other parts of the world. Albert Meijer and Erna Ruijer from Utrecht University explained how they set up a “Living lab” in the government administration of Groningen where civil servants and students interacted on the usefulness – or lack – of existing data.Ambrose Kessy from the University of Dar es Salaam discussed the importance of engaging with local institutions – rather than just central, national ones – to turn data into information and create lasting change. As a result, all called not for less but better targeted transparency requests, taking into account needs and interests of potential users as well as the context in which data will be used.
- Transparency, data and accountability are essentially about people, relationships and power. Data alone does not bring change. People do. A number of the projects presented at the conference highlighted the importance of directly engaging with all concerned actors and building partnerships for more inclusive and participatory processes. Accountability to citizens and for effective service delivery is at the core of projects such as Making All Voices Count. If transparency is to be truly revolutionary, it is only by generating a dynamic relationship between governments, donors, CSOs and citizens whereby questions are being asked and acted upon.
With so many inspiring discussions and projects, we will all be kept busy until the next conference in Rio in 2019!