Data-driven government: oxymoron or reality?

‘Open data remains a PR tool for use by governments to control information outflows and to act as a proxy for transparency that comes from freedom of information laws’

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The notion of data-driven government – the use of data to support all decisions, policies, performance metrics, etc required in the daily and long-term operation of government (at all levels) – presumes to solve the age-old challenge of balancing ‘head vs. heart’ when it comes to decision-making and associated activities in government bodies.

The concept of data-driven government is not new, and dates back many decades now, but has had limited success in government until recently.

The data-driven approach has been brought to the forefront again as governments everywhere jump on the data, analytics and digital bandwagons, and proceed to transform themselves into more agile and efficient bodies that can better serve the needs of their citizens at substantially lower costs.

It is clearly an ideology that has caught on in the numerous digital transformation programmes that we see around the world (UK-GDS, US-18F, Australia-DTO, EU-SDM, etc) and has an almost religious zeal to it in terms of how politicians and mandarins characterise it in their advocacy activities (let alone those who are actively involved in its delivery).

>See also: Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls on governments to honour their promises on open data

Government has become increasingly complex to deliver effectively given the growing demands of daily operations and the increased sophistication and expectations of citizens.

At the heart of this is a growing awareness that government is more and more like a business that now must compete for customers in a highly crowded field of competitors.

While this may strike some as odd, it is clear to most strategists that government must keep up with advances in decision science used by the commercial sector in order to survive (at the polls at least).

A truly data-driven government requires a transformation that begins at the very top with the elected officials who are accountable (with their civil service partners) for the strategy and tactics required to achieve the desired outcomes.

These officials must change their spots from using their power to force outcomes to achieving outcomes by leveraging facts and measures.

This approach must then cascade down to all levels of government. The secret sauce in this approach will be balancing the political agenda of elected officials with the needs of citizens.

Data-driven government provides levels of transparency not currently found, even in the most progressive open data programmes. The data used to drive these decisions must pass scrutiny by oversight bodies, opposing parties and citizens themselves. This leaves little room for political agendas to be fulfilled using smoke-filled back rooms as a proxy for decision science.

Data-driven government is a rationale that the open data community uses in their advocacy activities to justify further adoption and investments. They speak of ‘dog fooding’ by governments with respect to using their own open data to drive outcomes as well as enhance transparency.

I believe that open data remains a PR tool for use by governments to control information outflows and to act as a proxy for transparency that comes from freedom of information laws.

>See also: Why 2016 will be the year of connected government

These efforts typify the fact that political power is hard to give up willingly by elected officials, but given citizens’ awareness of these tactics it will not be long before they are non-viable.

In the end, will governments have the political willpower to become truly data-driven, or will they continue to embrace the politics of cynicism, power and cronyism?

It remains to be seen, but strong seeds of change have already been planted, and if supported by strong nurturing (via the electorate), plenty of sunshine (transparency) and nutrients (budget), it can and will become a reality.

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