Data Culture and Cooperation are Paramount to Effective Data for Governance Strategies: Takeaways from Two Expert Panel Sessions — PART 1

How can data be used to improve governance processes? What role do different stakeholders play in data use across the public sector? Where do non-profits, watchdogs, and lay citizens fall into the mosaic of data collection, use, and governance to ensure a responsible, inclusive, and accountable data-driven democracy?

Last month, The GovLab hosted two online panels with experts from multiple sectors and regions to address these issues within the context of the 100 Questions Governance Domain.

We share our findings in three parts: the below recaps the first panel, “Building Governance Strategies.” Read more about the other panel, “Doing Data-Driven Democracy Right,” in Part 2 here. As well, find our “Cross-Cutting Takeaways from the Panels” in Part 3 here.

Panel 1: Building Data Governance Strategies

The GovLab’s Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer Stefaan Verhulst moderated a cross-cutting panel featuring:

  • Claudia Chwalisz, Innovative Citizen Participation Lead at the OECD;
  • Mikael Baker, Senior ICT Advisor for the Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub at the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation in USAID; and
  • Meghan “Meg” Nalbo, the Nepal Country Representative for the Asia Foundation.

In this 60-minute conversation, Stefaan and the panel members talked about how different stakeholders utilize data-sharing and data-driven strategies to improve governance.

The full conversation, as well as an overview of the discussion, is available below.

The Impact of Data in Governmental Decision-Making

Stefaan started the panel by asking the guests why stakeholders should care about the use of data for governance, and if data has an impact on governance. Mikael answered that data is important and influential in governance, especially for digital transformation and open government initiatives. He mentioned Estonia’s X-Road initiative, an open-source data exchange layer, which allows for interoperability of information between different ministries. This software allows for frictionless data exchange between government agencies to create sector-specific metadata sets more efficiently. Not only does this data sharing help reduce collection resources, it allows for unique recombination for tailored datasets and ultimately, more bespoke governance.

From a South Asian perspective, Meg noted that data is an important tool because of the growing interactiveness of governing systems. “Data as a point of departure for discussion has dynamic qualities that also really importantly can bring in very diverse voices in interpretation,” she stated. Creating online town halls and forums allows for knowledge generation that is nuanced to the needs of the community and creates participatory policies. For instance, in Nepal, the Asia Foundation supported women in data groups that provide a diverse perspective on datasets not usually considered by governments when making decisions. As well, bringing data to issues such as waste management, disaster management, and health governance satisfies the demand by citizens for informed, innovative, and proactive decision-making.

For Claudia, data availability allows for deliberative democracy processes, which foster opportunities for diverse groups to understand and evaluate information, leading to better decision-making. “Having that cognitive diversity leads to better decisions than when you have just a homogenous group of experts around the table to make that decision.” Furthermore, involving citizens in decision-making can transform their own lifestyle choices, returning agency to residents and reducing technocratic policy creation.

The Implications of Data-Driven Transformation

Stefaan then asked Mikael about how digital transformation and data in governance interplay. Has the discussion around digital transformation become more data-driven? To this end, Mikael responded that data is the backbone of these structures but that digital service delivery and transformation efforts don’t often consider data’s unique needs when it comes to policy design. By implementing data stewards and robust cybersecurity measures, the data within digital systems are better protected.

Turning from a structural point of view to a stakeholder perspective, Stefaan opened the conversation around opportunities to address both the misuse and missed use of data via public engagement. He asked Claudia if and how citizen assemblies can be used to increase public engagement in data use. After explaining what constitutes a citizen assembly — essentially, a forum that allows the public to grapple with complex problems, Claudia emphasized that by bringing residents and their social values and ethics into the fold, the decision-making process becomes more legitimate. She points to the example of Canada, where the government commissioned three citizen assemblies on digital expression, pulling together issues of data governance and misinformation.

These alternative data infrastructures allow for better response and management. However, Stefaan noted that data governance cannot occur without gathering existing data available. Meg highlighted that Nepal just held its first census as a democratic state in November 2021, which will “serve as a baseline” for addressing public problems in a more accountable manner, and show what has (and hasn’t) worked in the transformation to democratic governance. To this end, the Asia Foundation is following how data in governance transformations will affect Nepal to understand where and which groups are more closely involved in the census process. How will Nepal avoid bottlenecks in data handling and sharing? Meg emphasized the need to watch how national and local bodies share data, and the differences between data collection capacity and processes at a municipal level.

In addition to institutional capabilities, emerging data-driven governance faces political roadblocks. “The questions that data answers,” Stefaan said, “is already a political kind of discussion.” Claudia jumped in to underscore that “data is not neutral” and citizen assemblies should not strive for balanced information. Rather, she believes that the diversity and breadth of data and stakeholders involved in the data collection are key for holistic deliberation. As laid out in the OECD’s Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making, citizen assemblies need to allow participants with ample time and avenues to request more information where needed. This way, the decisions ultimately undertaken can be justified in a transparent and accountable manner, increasing government legitimacy.

The Need for Data Collaboratives

Next, Stefaan noted that bringing multiple stakeholders and their data together is challenging. The GovLab is actively creating data collaboratives, a new form of public-private data-sharing partnerships to reduce cross-sectoral information silos. He asked Mikael about strategies to nurture these partnerships.

“This is a tough nut to crack,” Mikael started. “In many cases, it isn’t an issue of not enough data existing, it’s that the data aren’t available and aren’t shared between stakeholders.” He affirmed the need for public-private partnerships to reduce the fragmentation of data ecosystems and move towards an inclusive culture around data. However, politics between ministries and sectors exacerbate issues of data hoarding, and steps needed to clean and combine data are very resource-intensive. To address the root of this problem, Mikael emphasized the need to foster a working culture of data literacy and scale-up shared data programs. USAID has been working at this intersection to see how open data-sharing structures can help better educate students and grow their data skills.

Stefaan then asked Meg about how to responsibly work with data in areas where the government isn’t always trusted. Meg underscored the importance of system design and data culture that nurtures the “disruptors, protectors, and incrementalists.” She explained how disruptors are most common at local government levels in Nepal, who are community leaders eager to make change. Atomic changes allow for incremental shifts that challenge the status quo and legacy systems in a more impactful and sustainable way. Finally, Meg noted the need to protect those who are marginalized by data and ensure representativeness in the data governance process.

The Panelists’ Most Important Question from the Top Ten Governance Domain List

Lastly, Stefaan asked each of the guests to state their top question of the Governance Domain’s priority list.

Mikael chose “If citizens have greater access to data and information, does that mobilize them to take action and engage politically? Under what circumstances does that happen?” to understand how opening up the active data players can create change.

Claudia wanted to know “How can democracies achieve inclusion more effectively, in terms of both process (how decisions are made, whose voices count), and outcomes (how resources, prosperity and well-being are distributed)?” because this question reframes both the problem of data and democratic (in)action.

From her experiences working on data in governance, Meg believes that a more human-centered approach is vital for better strategies. She selected “Which populations/groups are not represented in data that is collected and used for formal government decision-making? Who is most at risk of being excluded from consideration with the rise in data innovations?” to spot and mitigate biases.

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About The 100 Questions Governance Domain

In 2021, The GovLab, along with partners from The Asia Foundation, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia, and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, launched the Governance Domain. This domain marks the sixth installment of the 100 Questions Initiative, a cross-sectoral project that seeks to collaboratively map the 100 most pressing, high-impact questions. Unlike traditional problem-solving methods, which formulate questions based on the data already available, the 100 Questions challenges “bilinguals’’ — a global cohort of subject matter and data science experts from across industries — and the public to focus on defining the problem first, then seeking out the data that could help address the issues. By taking a demand-driven approach to policymaking, this approach identifies which issues are the most urgent and lays the foundation to build data collaboratives, a new form of public-private partnerships that harness intersectoral data for public good.

Professionals interested in collaborating are encouraged to send an email to contact@the100questions.org or fill out this form. For more information about the 100 Questions Initiative, visit www.the100questions.org, or contact Stefaan Verhulst, lead of the initiative at sverhulst@thegovlab.org.

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