Costing Open Government Reforms: What About the Politics?

Alan Hudson, Executive Director

November 9, 2017

Next week at the Open Gov Hub, we will be hosting a discussion about the pioneering work that colleagues at Results for Development have been doing to develop a framework for estimating the cost of open government reforms. You can sign-up for the event here and see the report — “Priceless?” — here.

We’re looking forward to hearing from the authors of the report, Praneetha Vissapragada and Naomi Joswiak. The creative minds behind the Open Gov Hub — Nathaniel Heller, also of Results for Development, and Jean-Louis Sarbib of Development Gateway — will join Praneetha, Naomi and I to discuss the value and limits of the approach to costing open government reforms that the report sets out.

This is a piece of work that we’ve followed closely as it emerged from the Research Consortium on the Impact of Open Government, with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. (Here is what we had to say a year ago).

  • Enthusiasm, because we agree (see “The value of open governance”) that the opengov agenda needs to move beyond rehearsing normative arguments for openness and pay additional attention to the costs, benefits, and pathways to impact, of more open processes of government. Paying attention to costs is in some ways the low-hanging fruit, but it is an important part of the mix.
  • Skepticism, because estimating the costs of supporting reforms that are political in nature, and generating cost estimates that are transferrable across different political contexts, is a major challenge and one which the Results for Development work does not at this stage — and notwithstanding the helpful caveat about context and variation on page 6 of the report — squarely address.

There is no doubt that information about costs — and still more, impacts and pathways to those impacts — can be helpful inputs into decisions about whether and how to invest in opening government. There are however, some significant challenges in translating costings across contexts for investments that deal with issues such as governance that are, at their heart, political issues whose dynamics may vary greatly by context. Conducting lots of costings exercises — something which Results for Development are hoping to see happen — will provide additional data points, but more data points alone will not address the challenge of ensuring that the data can usefully inform investment decisions in other contexts.

We’ll have more to say on Tuesday, but as a sneak preview it seems to us that the sort of approach that Martin Williams of the Blavatnik School of Government sets out for considering whether a policy can translate across contexts, might also be useful in considering the extent to which costings estimates make sense across contexts (see here, and, relatedly this excellent paper on “the generalizability puzzle” by Mary Ann Bates and Rachel Glennerster). That is, to consider the extent to which the key assumptions made in the costings estimates, and in the underlying investments that have been made in one place, are likely to hold in another place where a similar approach is being considered.

We look forward to being part of the conversation about how investment decisions being made in one place can be informed by estimates of the costs of investments elsewhere. And to broadening the discussion to consider how efforts to measure the impacts of investments in governance and transparency — efforts such as those planned as part of the Brookings/Results for Development/Natural Resource Governance Institute collaboration on leveraging transparency to reduce corruption — take account of the fact that the impact of investments in governance reform is, because of the political nature of governance reform, highly dependent on context.

Come join us as we grapple collaboratively with these important challenges, Tuesday 14th November, at 11am, at the Open Gov Hub — sign up here!