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Strategies for navigating shifting political winds

Ideas on how to embed open data when facing political change

How do you embed policies within government when there’s a significant change of administration? Credit: DoD

Liz Carolan, Open Data Charter

Today we’re launching Resilient reform in government: Lessons from open data leaders, a collection of reflections by officials on how they worked to embed reforms before the recent US, French, Philippine and Kenyan national elections. We would like to invite you to join in a live webinar we will be hosting on December 6th at 3pm GMT, 10am ET. Go here to register.

The morning after the US election, just over 12 months ago, I stood at the back of a large Washington DC conference hall filled with the heads of election commissions from every corner of the world. Together we watched live as President Obama spoke about peaceful transitions of power and respecting the will of the people. It was an emotional and inspiring moment on an otherwise gruelling day.

Election officials from around the world watch the peaceful transition of power

I had been invited to that conference to talk about the power of openness to improve democracy, but it felt like forces were working in opposite direction. The night before I found myself standing outside the White House as the final results came in, trying to imagine what must have been going on inside those walls.

It made me think, if you are a team leading a high stakes agenda in government, how do you prepare for the eventuality that everything you have worked for can be erased in a pen-stroke?

This is the question we set out to answer in a paper we are launching today in partnership with the Open Data Institute Resilient reform in government: Lessons from open data leaders. We asked those who had led open data initiatives in the USA, Philippines, Kenya and France to share with us how they prepared for pivotal recent elections in their countries. They were Cori Zarek (USA), Ivy Ong (Philippines), Romain Tales (France) and Philip Thigo (Kenya).

Each leader approached the task of making their policy area stick in a different way. But one of the things they had in common is that they started preparing well in advance of election day.

In France, the team focused on getting a legislative base for the open data agenda well in advance of the election, to avoid what they called “political pollution”. They also worked to influence European institutions whose influence would outlast their administration.

In Philipines, there was a focus in building relationships with those who would remain in government following any transition, so they understood and owned the policy and its objectives.

In the US there was a focus on building the value proposition for open data through supporting and communicating success stories, and working on bipartisan legislation.

By contrast, in Kenya efforts to build momentum around the open data initiative had stalled in advance of the election. The vote presented an opportunity for a refresh of the political will to make progress.

These personal reflections can be taken together as a set of strategies for how to embed an initiative in government so that is resilient to political change. A few patterns emerge which might be of interest to others facing a similar prospect of a transition, including beyond the area of open government:

  1. De-politicise and institutionalise the policy area, so that it has a strong administrative foundation, and can avoid becoming closely associated with one leader or party brand.
  2. Broaden ownership of the initiative, so that a greater number of people are responsible or involved in the policy in some way.
  3. Deliver results that resonate with key audiences inside and outside government, so the value is understood, and those who benefit can push for it to be maintained following any transition.

These insights are feeding into our current review of the Charter’s strategy, including our understanding of the role Charter adoption can play in institutionalising an initiative, and how work in sectors like agriculture, climate change and anti-corruption can focus on broadening ownership and delivering results.

Back in DC, the investments made by the open data team appear to be paying off, as legislation slowly makes its way through the democratic channels unobstructed. However as Cori reminds us in her piece “our work is far from done — we must continue demonstrating the value of open data and showing examples of how open data increases innovation, effectiveness, and efficiency.”



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Open Data Charter

Open Data Charter

Collaborating with governments and organisations to open up data for pay parity, climate action and combatting corruption.