Open Data, Transparent Governance, and Accountable Administrations: A Look at the Fourth Plan of Open Government Partnership

What is my government doing? Where are the time and resources being invested? How are those investments shaping my community today, and how could they shape it differently tomorrow? These questions are at the foundation of an open government able to be transparent and accountable for the decisions it takes. The almost total access to the internet reached in the last two decades generates unprecedented loads of data produced. Money and people flow can now be tracked and recorded by governments and citizens, and new potential of information for collective decision-making is changing democracies worldwide. Open data means that more actors can analyze and create solutions that were previously only in the hands of governments. So challenges like climate change become more evident, and new tools for policymaking and public spending, such as online participatory budgets, of frequent use.

Following such positive premises, the Open Government Partnership was formed in 2011. This network of countries was created by a group of government leaders and civil society advocates who came together to create a unique partnership, one that combines these powerful forces to promote accountable, responsive, and inclusive governance. As of now, seventy-eight countries and a growing number of local governments representing more than two billion people, along with thousands of civil society organizations, are members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). As publicly reminded by president Obama in 2016, one of the OPGs creators and most influential advocates, the partnership still has a long way to go to keep on promoting public actions towards a more participative, accountable, digital, and transparent way of managing public affairs.

The Fourth Italian Plan for Open Government

The Fourth Plan for Open Government is the fourth national Plan made by the Italian government for the period 2019-2020. Italy has its OGP working group within the Department for Public Administration to draw up an action strategy and monitor a multitude of innovative initiatives. The OGP team drafted the Plan and coordinated the work of all the administrations and actors involved. Indeed, the document is the result of an intense exchange with civil society representatives who are members of the Open Government Forum, an assembly open to all organizations dealing with open government issues. The Plan was drafted in a participatory way. This is why it has also been online for three weeks for a public consultation accessible to all citizens. Thus, those who wanted to give their contribution before publishing could leave a comment on the website. To understand more about the Plan, we met Marco Marrazza and Stefano Pizzicanella, who are coordinating the open government strategy for Italy.

Marco, how would you describe Open government, and what is the role of the Ministry?

The concept of open government is a bit ambivalent, a digital administration becomes more transparent and accountable, but a ministry can have a culture of “openness” even if it is all on paper. Having a more advanced tech level does not mean more participation. Here at the Ministry, we work as coordinators, and we are part of the whole public administration’s action. In the Fourth Plan, we have ministries and regions, so we are not the only ones responsible, but we pull the strings of these actions. So, when, for example, the government changes, we have to re-explain all the actions and strategy we set up because people change.

Let’s talk about the Fourth Plan, is it continuing the action of the previous plan?

This Plan is more than a continuation. It is a new strategy that benefits from the experience gained in the first three plans. From the second Plan onwards, in 2013, the theme of open governance received a political endorsement: the Minister of our Department came to know of the partnership’s existence, and Italy was able to enter the steering committee, increasing the visibility of the Plan. With the third Plan, we created the Civil Society Forum, which is chaired by the Minister, and where many associations can discuss public administration problems and solutions. The Fourth Plan greatly benefited from the increased political visibility and the presence of the forum. Compared to the past, it has been easier to meet the associations and aggregate the numerous proposals we received.

What are the actions concretely?

We put various actors in communication. While drafting the Fourth Plan, we put different administrations together. Each administration brought action proposals; we reached 40 actions then aggregated in 10 streams: 1. Open data; 2. Transparency; 3. Register of beneficial owners; 4. Support for participation; 5. Regulation of stakeholder; 6. Culture of open government; 7. Corruption prevention; 8. Simplification, performance, and equal opportunities; 9. Digital services; 10. Digital citizenship and skills. The new program tends towards a strategic vision rather than separate actions. In this way, administrations have to coordinate. It is difficult to talk about a single goal for each action. The idea of the partnership is to raise the level of the bar and do “challenging actions.” For example, expanding transparency on the public administration lobby, creating a better capacity to consult citizens, or creating open data where there is a real request. Open data is probably the most challenging area, as the administration must create a mechanism for the constant production of data, which means updated data while keeping up their usability. A classic example relates to transport: if the data are not exact, the app does not work.

How do you monitor the implementation? 

The whole Plan is based on a gentlemen’s agreement, as the realization of actions of the Plan has no formal obligations. The two-year cycle allows making a more accurate monitor. There are two main tools of monitoring. The first involves the website, where citizens can check the progress of the different pages. The second independent report mechanism monitoring is the case of scholars who are summoned by the central OGP, who does a midterm and end-term-report. The Open Government Forum had a significant impact starting with the third Plan. The forum allowed bringing together representatives of civil society, academia, businesses, and consumer protection associations interested in open government issues, and who wish to participate actively in their application. These actors enter a mailing list, and there are two meetings a year in which all associations meet with the Minister. Critical issues and new subjects are highlighted for the attention of the Minister. Then the associations are invited to thematic tables, like participation, accountability, open data, digital skills to discuss.

What is the relationship between participation and an open government?

The relationship between open government and participation is mediated by communication, one main fundamental aspect. With this in mind, we introduce an open government tool to communicate and create participation. We are establishing a dedicated portal, which will become the point of access to consultations organized by public administrations. Citizens wishing to participate in consultations will have a single place to visit and receive alerts. The portal would help support, through specific editorial staff, the dissemination of consultation initiatives and the compliance with consultation quality standards by public administrations. To this end, practical guidelines inspired by the best international practices will be produced. Special attention will be to administrations by offering open-source consultation, setting up a dedicated help desk, and providing specific training to public employees. Another step at the regional level will be developing the macro objective “participation,” meaning the transition from mere transparency on the public action to active citizen participation at the local level.

What is the central challenge of creating participative processes?

This challenge is to do quality consultations. The Fourth Action Plan has the aim of compelling, putting obligations, to those who want to do in the public administration consultation and say what the quality of the consultation should be. Otherwise, better not to do it and inform. Reporting the results of a consultation is critical. It is not about just giving the numbers but explaining the results and criteria of your choice promptly. Communication is a fundamental aspect of making participation. 

What are some concrete tools promoted by the Plan on participation?

Indeed, this is the case of the creation of platforms for open consultations mentioned before. This platform will be at disposal for all the administrations that want to use it. This initiative sees the participation of the city of Rome and Milan. Every small town can access software, for which we will also provide courses. Cities can then create consultative processes as in the platform https://partecipa.gov.it/. The software refers to that of Barcelona called Decidim, a real success case. The other tool implemented during this Plan is a portal called consultazione.gov.it, a connection point where citizens go to find out what is happening in the world of public consultation in Italy. The citizens can connect and discover the various discussions and votes taking place. This site will also monitor and provide data. Everyone can read the text and monitor the implementation of all the actions and initiatives on the website open.gov.it with detailed information on their progress.