Global data lessons from the OECD

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Governments achieve better results by bringing responsibility for data policies close to the centre.

​​​​​Image: ITAPA

Data makes a huge difference in how governments serve their citizens. But how should it be governed?

“Should it be at the centre of government? The President's or Prime Minister's office? Or should it be within a specific dedicated institution?” Barbara Ubaldi, the Team Lead for Digital Government and Open Data at OECD, tells GovInsider.

Countries are experimenting with models, and there seems to be a winner. According to a 2018 OECD report, governments achieve better results by allocating the responsibility to co-ordinate open data policies close to the centre of government - via a Chief Data Officer. They are followed by those governments that assign it to a line ministry responsible for the digital agenda, public sector modernisation, or both.

Understanding the data value chain

Data units in the centre break down silos between stores of data holed up in separate ministries, and allows users to combine, link, and reuse data in all sorts of ways, says Ubaldi.

UK has recently moved its data policy from a central team in the Cabinet Office to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. This led many to believe that UK’s impetus on digital is in decline, according to Andrew Greenway, a former member of the UK Government Digital Service.

Indonesia’s One Data policy for all of government is led by the President’s Office. Singapore restructured its data and digital agency to bring it from a line ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Ubaldi advises that governments identify the “whole data value chain” of actors inside and outside of the public sector that “actually have a stake and an interest and the capacity to use the data”. For instance, in Slovenia, a startup is using open government data to design a platform that allows wine producers to grow grapes with less use of pesticides. The wine producers are able to use this information to make better decisions for their vineyards, according to the OECD report.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, companies have developed useful transport apps using open government data, but going a step further than simply offering a feed of public vehicle coordinates. Discussions between the Department of Transport and Trade Association for Train Operating Companies led to free access to the fares databases in early 2013. Price comparison websites and apps have since sprung up, empowering commuters to find tickets at the best price.

It is more effective to focus on quality rather than quantity when publishing datasets online, Ubaldi argues. Open government data is rarely usable by ordinary citizens in the form in which they are first released, according to the OECD paper.

This will require governments to rethink the needs of its citizens, so that they can develop datasets that are useful and usable: what information, when, and how. “I think a good mapping of, for instance, who produces data within the public sector, who is responsible for the data within the institution of the whole governance of the data value chain,” Ubaldi explains.

Trends in govtech

Besides data governance, she sees four other trends among governments around the world. First, they are boosting skills to support digital transformation. Leaders and decision-makers need to be spearheading this new mindset, Ubaldi says.

Second, “you can't develop skills or bring in people with new skills and therefore, new mentality, that can support this transformation, if you don't give the people the space and incentive to operate in a different way,” she explains. “For that to happen, the mentality needs to change among leaders.”

At the same time, Ubaldi is seeing governments interested in changing regulatory frameworks to address frequent emerging technology, or different ways to use data. “We also see the whole discussion around new digital rights emerging, especially connected to the use cases of algorithms, other forms of artificial intelligence, or increasing the reuse and sharing of personal data.”

When it comes to service delivery, there is a “growing understanding and awareness that the processes inside need to be digital by design, regardless of the channel used by the final user to the service”. Done right, users may not even need to interact with the government at all: “By rethinking the process, we eliminate some of the steps for some of the procedures that were necessary before”.

And fourth, she sees governments rethinking how to link the investment of digital with the procurement of it. “A big challenge is also in demonstrating all these investment and all these changes inside are actually producing quality services that add value for the final users.”

Ultimately, Ubaldi’s intent is to work towards a future where governments are participatory and collaborative, and approach policies in new and innovative ways. “I hope to achieve by the end of the year a better understanding of government and how they rethink, redesign policies and how they organise themselves,” Ubaldi concludes. “It really supports this mentality that helps bring down bureaucracy.