I have heard a lot of talk in the last few years about open government and open data. So what is this all about? At the highest level, it is about government posting their data online for consumption, which leads to more transparency and more value to citizens and organizations.
Although there are supposedly some tangible benefits to this concept, I have honestly not seen them. I am not saying being more transparent and sharing data is a bad thing. But can governments justify to their taxpayers that they are getting value for the money being spent to post this information online?
As we consider this issue, I would like to propose some alternative discussions we might want to have. These conversations should be about data collection, updating legacy operational systems, removing paper forms, and organizational collaboration strategy.
The Fundamentals of the Open Data Movement
All these conversations should start with the fundamentals. Governments collect a lot of data, as they are in the business of regulation creation and enforcement as well as income redistribution. From this, they must create and enforce these regulations, as well as document their implementation. Governments also run on tax payer money, so at the end of the day, they are accountable for how they execute these regulations and how they have redistributed the monies they have collected.
If I was to break down the open data movement, I would classify it in to two camps:
- Those that want accountability and transparency
- Those that want to leverage the data for a value-added benefit
In this blog, we’ll focus on the first camp.
Accounting and Transparency
Many times there are directives of more accountability and transparency on what government is doing. Where things get interesting is the ability for governments to share their information in a format that is consumable.
Let’s take a simple budget analysis. Over the last 4 years, I have had the luxury of reading and analyzing the provincial budgets, strategic plans, and annual reports for all the Canadian provinces and many of the larger cities. My observational summaries:
- There is no consistent method on how these reports are presented.
- There is no common set of metrics that they follow.
- There is no real ability to get at any of the information unless one does forensic accounting.
- All the information is essentially in large PDF documents
In essence, there is no common method of accounting, so there is also no common method of doing the reporting and data presentation.
The Need for Better Tools
Most of our government customers have an ERP system in place, but they do not have a method of effectively tracking the movement of money from the treasury (or equivalent department or ministry) to their respective recipients (other ministries, agencies, third party organizations). Taking this back to open data, what occurs then is the ability for only basic information to be presented back to the public in a limited format – often buried in an annual report or budget documents.
When I look at this problem, the open data discussion quickly morphs into the need for a better set of ERP and CRM tools for the management of the money, as well as analytics tools. Once these systems are in place, a more meaningful discussion around open data can take place.
Another area that seems to have no consistency in government is performance metrics. One of the reason governments are unable to be more transparent is that they have no ability to collect good information and analyze it to generate performance metrics that are meaningful. In the vast majority of cases, information by governments is still collected on forms that are paper-based. This has led to governments spending vast amounts on document management systems.
Permits and Licenses
Focusing on online permits and licenses, online services, and the use of a common platform for these systems (CRM in most cases) would offer a solid step in finding ways to alleviate the data collection problem.
In helping Cities leverage technology, I’ve observed we look at open data as an Azure-hosted play of the data, and often view enhancing the document management experience as a separate discussion. What we should be doing, though, is connecting the two together to focus the discussion around transforming legacy paper-based systems. This will make the document management system redundant and provide a richer data set to make available through open data – as well as make data more usable for performance management and data analytics. By taking a holistic approach we can help Cities gain scaled benefit from their investments … a 1 + 1 = 3.
This article is written by Glenn Berg, Government Industry Manager in Canada & originally appeared in Microsoft CityNext blog.