The challenges of open data and participatory governance

Published on Aug 11, 2023

In another post, I talked about why we need smart cities and what exactly makes them smart (hint: it’s not about the technology)

Well…Smart cities must collect plenty of data as a means to analyse urban problems and support participatory governance.

With an astonishing estimate of over 328.77 quintillion bytes of data generated daily across the global economy, governments, universities, and think tanks, we find ourselves standing at the threshold of immense potential.

In this article, we explore the challenges of open data and its correlation with participatory governance.

Open data and citizen participation: the link?

Government entities (operating at various levels) play a pivotal role in generating and accumulating vast amounts of data.

Open government data platforms have emerged as prominent indicators of progress towards smarter cities.

The integration of open data — coupled with participatory governance policies — holds the key to enhancing government efficiency and fostering public trust through increased awareness and e-participation.

So, for example, Europe’s Open Data 2022 Maturity report indicates that France leads the 35 countries analysed as it has the highest maturity level.

What’s more….Citizen participation stands as a fundamental pillar of open government and, in particular, Open Government Data initiatives.

It is widely acknowledged that the essence of open data lies in promoting participation.

However, despite the global momentum gained by the open government movement, the past decade has revealed an important reality… merely making government data accessible DOES NOT automatically result in citizen participation.

It does not guarantee that they will feel empowered by this information or possess the means to hold policymakers accountable based on it.

Open data challenges that impact citizen participation

1.   Limited digital literacy

One of the primary obstacles hindering citizen participation in open data initiatives is the uneven digital literacy and technical skills among the population.

Not all citizens possess the necessary knowledge and proficiency to navigate through complex datasets or leverage data-driven tools effectively.

Bridging this gap requires targeted efforts to enhance digital literacy through educational programs, workshops, and user-friendly interfaces that cater to diverse skill levels.

2.   Lack of accessible interfaces

The availability of open data alone is insufficient to foster citizen engagement.

Often, citizens encounter barriers when attempting to access and comprehend the data due to the lack of intuitive and user-friendly interfaces.

Complicated data formats, technical jargon, and convoluted platforms can alienate citizens, discouraging their active involvement.

Overcoming this challenge necessitates the development of accessible and user-centric interfaces that facilitate easy data exploration, visualisation, and interpretation.

3.   Doubts about data and democratic empowerment

Some citizens may express scepticism regarding the reliability and credibility of open data, which can diminish their trust in the information provided by government entities.

Concerns about data quality, accuracy, and biases can lead to doubts about the true democratic empowerment that open data promises.

Addressing these concerns requires transparent data governance practices, rigorous data validation mechanisms, and clear communication about the sources, methodologies, and limitations of the data, instilling confidence and promoting informed citizen participation.

4.   Restoring trust

Citizen participation heavily relies on trust in the institutions and processes facilitating open data initiatives.

Public trust can be undermined by previous instances of government mismanagement, data breaches, or lack of transparency.

To restore trust, local governments must adopt a proactive approach, demonstrating their commitment to data privacy, security, and ethical use.

Building strong communication channels, engaging in dialogue with citizens, and involving them in decision-making processes can help rebuild trust and foster an environment conducive to citizen participation.

Final remarks

Although countries worldwide exhibit varying degrees of maturity in their open data initiatives, there is a clear and pervasive willingness to enhance their open data performance.

Each nation faces the common challenge of improving both strategy and implementation on a national scale, encompassing policy development, impact assessment, portal enhancement, and data quality enhancement.

Moreover, fostering collaboration on a global scale has the potential to fortify open data efforts across continents.

By actively learning from one another and igniting new initiatives, countries can collectively drive progress in the open data landscape.

Collaboration becomes a catalyst for innovation, enabling the exchange of best practices, expertise, and resources to elevate open data endeavours worldwide.


About the Author

Mohammad J Sear is focused on bringing purpose to digital in government.

He has obtained his leadership training from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA and holds an MBA from the University of Leicester, UK.

After a successful 12+ years career in the UK government during the premiership of three Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, Mohammad moved to the private sector and has now for 20+ years been advising government organizations in the UK, Middle East, Australasia and South Asia on strategic challenges and digital transformation.

He is currently working for Ernst & Young (EY) and leading the Digital Government practice efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and is also a Digital Government and Innovation lecturer at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, France.

As a thought-leader some of the articles he has authored include: “Digital is great but exclusion isn’t – make data work for driving better digital inclusion” published in Harvard Business Review, “Holistic Digital Government” published in the MIT Technology Review, “Want To Make Citizens Happy – Put Experience First” published in Forbes Middle East.

More from Mohammad J Sear