(ex Digital Government Director, Government of Columbia)
Colombia’s climb into third place on the OECD OURindex ranking (at bottom of the graphic) was a surprise to many in the Open Data Community. The name of the country is more likely associated with corruption and a violent past, rather than transparency and openness of government information.
But such a result is not a coincidence or a flaw in the rankings. Colombia’s government has, throughout the last decade, passed legislation, implemented technology and created a set of institutions that let citizens know what the government is up to. Both in regards to spending and purchases and also in its day to day operations, the publication of open data and the periodic reporting of results, has given citizens a better understanding of government initiatives that used to be known only by headlines.
Groups of data enthusiasts started to have access to information they could only dream of before. Public servants started to understand that the best way to safeguard their efforts was to make them public. Slowly the culture of openness permeated many agencies. Those enthusiasts became organised and more visible, becoming the front line of Open Data overseers in the public service, as well as defenders.
We created an agency in charge of making public purchases efficient. This was achieved with opened data that allowed the public to see government contracts almost immediately after being signed, as well as the process prior to the signing. We created datasets that allowed businesses to become more competitive by understanding their context and making the market less obscure.
Sustained initiative through avoiding complacency
However, such an effort is at risk of being lost because openness and transparency now appear to be taken for granted. Some of the newly appointed public servants feel that reporting is an opportunity for self-promotion rather than transparency. Some open data initiatives lose their funding due to lack of direct correlation (a worldwide problem) to the benefits they promote. In general, the perception is that the work has been completed so now there are other more pressing issues around citizen participation or digital transformation.
Transparent by default
We can’t afford to let this work fall behind and allow transparency to slowly move back to obscurity. Opening data with a clear vision and initiatives for transparency, is a work that must not stop. It is necessary that leaders recognise the importance of being “transparent by default” regardless of the size or apparent importance of the government initiatives. The only way to assert that recognition is by maintaining or increasing funding, keeping openness as a pillar of government, and understanding that citizens’ trust is an asset that takes years to build and only seconds to destroy.
The future will be transparent as long as our leaders understand that the commitment to transparency is not an initiative, but the only way of doing government business as usual.