It was predicted that the Internet would forever change government. Policy-making would become a collaborative effort between the government and the public; governance would be shared with civil society, and the citizenry would be engaged in meaningful dialogue with a highly effective public administration. All that was required was to start posting government data online. Today, through its Open Data portal, government has made 78,703 data sets available online, covering almost every subject imaginable. Nevertheless, the idyllic open government imagined in the early 2010s has not yet emerged.

This failure is often blamed on the public administration, especially on the way it has made open data available. Certainly, the Open Data portal has some bugs, including some inexplicable dead ends and pages that time out due to lag. The sheer volume of information makes for a somewhat labyrinthine search process that would benefit from user interface optimization. Few would dispute that there is room for improvement. But does the public administration’s inability to fix flaws in the finer features of the user experience explain why such a monumental undertaking as the open data movement has yet to revolutionize government? Certainly not: the lack of uptake actually boils down to governance myopia that overlooked the relationship between the availability of data and the research community.

Unrealistic expectations

To any observer with the benefit of hindsight, the expectations of open data were unrealistically optimistic. It is hard to imagine that any one change in public sector operations, even open data, could ever result in the total transformation of state-society relations. While many functions and governance relationships will change in the digital era, many of the long-standing principles of good government will not. It seems that the ‚Äúif you build it, they will come‚ÄĚ philosophy for public policy is no less faulty in the digital age than it was in the analogue one. The huge bump in the road for the open data movement has been the citizenry, who did not react as expected.

The most common public reaction to open data was not enthusiasm but ambivalence. At best, we can say that the expected explosion of public engagement simply did not occur. At the other end of the scale, the effect of open data has been worse than benign. Where unprecedented increases in the availability of data interacted with the steadily rising distrust of government, it contributed to paranoia. There is reason to suspect that in many cases the increase in information, the spread of social media and the building distrust in government have combined to help fuel the growth of conspiracy theories that range from being merely paranoid to being dangerous and outright ridiculous.

The most common public reaction to open data was not enthusiasm but ambivalence. At best, we can say that the expected explosion of public engagement simply did not occur.

Injecting open data into policy areas that do not have a civil society constituency will not produce public engagement or civic-minded policy analysis, any more than building a bridge to nowhere will produce economic development. In this sense, the task at hand is no longer about making data available but about producing an intellectual ecosystem where constructive engagement with open data can flourish. Rather than saddling government alone with the responsibility for curating all aspects of open data, it may be more fruitful to investigate the reasons for the lack of uptake of open data in civil society.

Becoming deft with data

A huge amount of data is collected in government operations, not just through statistical agencies like Statistics Canada but also through regular operations, the policy creation process and enforcement of all manner of public sector entities. Perhaps the most significant shortcoming in putting these data to wider use has been a capacity gap: researchers in civil society are technically limited in their ability to use open data. Policy analysts lack experience with open data, whether that be in how to administer it from inside the public administration or in how to take advantage of it from the outside as a member of civil society. Part of this may certainly be attributed to the relative novelty of the venture and the adjustment to open data. And yet an open data site at the federal level was piloted in 2011, nearly seven years ago. Surely that has been sufficient time for Canada’s policy community to learn the ropes?

A more systemic issue for Canada’s policy experts is not so much the open data concept as it is data themselves. Critical and normative approaches are the traditional strengths of Canada’s policy training, not data analysis, making Canadian academics significantly less fluent in data than their counterparts elsewhere. Training in quantitative methods has tended to be a low priority in policy-oriented academic programs (typically at political science departments or public policy schools), which often include only 2 required courses in a 40-course undergraduate degree. People seeking advanced quantitative methods training can get it only outside Canada, usually at the ICPSR in the United States, because of the lack of data analytics capacity in Canadian political science departments.

There are also senior members of the academic research hierarchy who view the research process itself as the exclusive domain of an elite (graduate students or higher), and this poses serious problems for effective policy training. While an undergraduate political science degree is the most common training for policy analysts, undergraduates are generally excluded from the research process. They are expected to be consumers and not producers of knowledge. And yet these undergraduates become the policy analysts and policy wonks who are expected to make use of government’s open data.

The people who do conduct policy research may not be much better able to use open data. Funding for policy research outside of universities is scarce, and the ivory tower has been reluctant to embrace quantitative methods. The vigorous disciplinary debate and uncertainty about what use of quantitative methods will be accepted as valid are a sure sign that all but those with the greatest job security will avoid research based on open data, since doing otherwise could be career limiting. This is severely constraining the capacity of policy-makers to make use of open data in their work of supporting and informing government. One Canadian study even ranked research in political science, among the social sciences, as the least transferable to the world of policy.

Taking it slow

Open data has been treated by government as the silver bullet to resolve all manner of ills, and on this score it has been somewhat of a disappointment. There is still a great deal of potential for open data to have a positive impact on governance, but in order for this potential to be realized, patience, steadiness of purpose and a bidirectional approach to public engagement will be required. The failings of open data can be attributed not to faulty execution but to a lack of consideration for wider governance issues that have been left out, specifically the relationship and compatibility between those releasing data and those who are expected to use them.

A redoubling of the effort to make open data a success will require not just making government data sets available but also focusing on the policy ecosystem to which it is designed to contribute. This means paying close attention to curricula in academic training for policy-making and incentives to conduct research; and, ultimately, it will demand a commitment to the project of integrating publicly available data into the policy process. The public’s trust in government was not lost overnight, and it will not be regained overnight. With a steady commitment to public engagement (of which open data is only one part), that trust doesn’t have to be lost forever.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Maksim Kabakou.

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Mark Robbins is an Ottawa-based researcher, public servant and commentator on issues at the intersections of public policy, government operations and emerging technology.

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