When a Civil Society Initiative Becomes a Tool to Justify the Government: Openness Versus Utility Achieved by OpenTED

When a Civil Society Initiative Becomes a Tool to Justify the Government: Openness Versus Utility Achieved by OpenTED

Palina Prysmakova (School of Public Administration, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/IJEGR.2019070106


The question of utility of open data and related civil society initiatives depends on whom we consider a beneficiary in each particular case. The article provides a recent example of a civil society initiative that addressed the openness of procurement practices across the nations of European Union and its neighboring partners. Analyzing the project against Open Government Working Group's principles of open data, the article demonstrates that it indeed improved some levels of procurement data openness. Meanwhile, despite some utility of the project for the European Commission, the analysis suggests rather low utility for the public at large. The article suggests that, (1) utility has multiple levels, and some data in an open source is better than none; (2) data has to be understandable to have any utility for final consumers; and otherwise, the only utility achieved is the legitimization of the current governmental practices instead of their improvement
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1. Introduction

Governments across the globe are attempting to make public data more readily available. A quick perusal of most government websites shows that the list of the datasets available to the general public has been growing with the goal that this availability will make governments more accountable to its citizenry and more transparent by providing better access to public policy initiatives (Rodríguez et al., 2019). Correspondingly, the number of frameworks to access the quality of the shared open data is increasing (see Vetrò et al., 2016, for the detailed overview). For example, Gartner Group (n.d.) offers a three-dimensional framework to assess the data, (1) the sheer increase in data that is accessible through technology (volume), (2) the speed at which data can be captured (velocity), (3) and the scope of data that is available through electronic means (variety). The 5-star schema of Berners-Lee (n.d.) outlines the elements to ensure reusability maximization like availability, structure and linkage to the context. Wyns et al. (2013) propose a model that combines size and the dynamics of the target audience with the number of systems that use the shared product, etc. The open government data from the perspective of these frameworks is often described as “a subset … that is produced or commissioned by government or government-controlled entities” (Rodríguez et al., 2019).

Yet, data sharing is only one side of the information revolution that is relevant for governance. What the models above do not specify is that data has no intrinsic value if the purpose of making it available is not articulated in the first place. In other words, data should be shared along with clear explanations of how citizens can make use of data to hold governments accountable. This also became one of the major contentions of the Open Government movement. If someone attempts to make informed decisions about government actions (accountability) resulting from data, but the data is defective or open to interpretation, then data can do more harm than good. This has been historically referred to as GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

To demonstrate the importance of data understanding in addition to data sharing, this article presents a case study of the Open Tenders Electronic Daily (OpenTED) initiative, the aim of which was to comprehensively address the issues of public procurement in Europe. Procurement to secure goods and services is required for public organizations by governments and the public (Hughes, 2005). There is some evidence that improved accessibility and interoperability of procurement data should enable greater business access, competition, transactional efficiencies, better planning, transparency and accountability (Leipold, 2007). According to its official website, the goals of OpenTED were to achieve higher levels of openness in public purchasing systems across Europe (Open TED, n.d.) through gathering and sharing procurement data as well as showing interested constituencies how to find misconduct and other issues of concern in the created databases. As stated by the OpenTED founders, their goal was to “(1) collect and clean procurement data; (2) publish procurement data as downloads, linked data and APIs [application programming interfaces]; and (3) provide journalists and NGOs with training on how to investigate stories hidden in public procurement data” (OpenTED, n.d.). The declared aims of OpenTED correspond to functions that have been often attributed to civil society initiatives, which are “the struggle for transparency and against corruption, the controlled management of services, and the promotion of quasi markets in the public sector” (Jobert, 2008). Meanwhile, as the domain of global civil society remains complex and multifaceted (Taylor, 2002), we can see two separate lines of purpose. On the one hand, the first two aims to make procurement information more accessible are technical and not relevant to politics. On the other hand, the training component has a normative connotation. It adds a political angle to the initiative by suggesting that there are stories in the database worthy of journalists’ coverage and, therefore, worthy of the attention of the general public.

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