Managing the Risk to Data in Open Government

Monday February 8th, 2016

The year 2015 saw Governments moving to become increasing open with public data. The US DATA act is driving US government bodies to make available data sources and consider how best to manage the accountability of doing so. Membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) continues to increase and Australia is moving towards increased openness and both State and Federal levels. This increase in openness is beneficial to any country and the way a government operates on behalf of its citizens, when managed well. However there is risk in increasing openness, particularly if the approach is disparate and not managed centrally.

The OGP is a multilateral initiative launched jointly by the United States and Brazilian Presidents in September 2011. Initially founded with eight countries, the OGP membership now numbers 69. The OGP aims to promote open government through transparency, civic participation, fight corruption and harness new technology, with a goal for more open, effective and accountable governments. Membership requires countries to action continuous improvement through a two year plan which must be measurable and reported on.

Australia originally joined the OGP in May 2013, though involvement has been minimal until recently. The OGP is now back on the Australian Government agenda with Prime Minister Turnbull recommitting to action in November 2015. Australia could likely be considered more progressed to OGP goals than other member nations with transparency having been a part of the Government for many years now. Freedom of Information (FOI) has been in place for some time and has been strengthened in recent years to ensure the public have access to official documents, as well as process for procurement and policy documents to be published on the web being in place. However OGP membership requirement for a measurable two year action plan to be developed and actioned has not occurred before. The Australian Government has now commenced a consultative approach with the public and industry to develop this two year action plan. The action plan is expected to be launched in July 2016 and is currently in a public contribution phase through a wiki and collaborative design sessions planned for March 2016. The action plan is expected to identify from 5 to 15 new commitments for government to fund and action over the two years.

This is a great opportunity for the wealth of data and information accumulating in government to be made available for the benefit of the community. As an example, organisations through analytics will be able to identify where to focus their services associated with government grants. Information isn’t limited to data either, providing metadata around policy documents (for example, the Hansard record associated with the policy) would also benefit in reduced research time.

However this data and information is disparate, being held across multiple departments and states for their own purposes. The Australian Government approach is traditionally for each department to manage individually to an overarching policy as guidance, such is the case with FOI. However a piecemeal approach to releasing this data could lead to difficulties in utilising and has risks for aspects such as privacy. For example the same data fields that might be held at different departments for the same data will likely have different names. When released across multiple websites with different descriptor names, an analytics involving will be made more difficult to identify the connections between the data sources. This will lead to increased effort in utilising these data sources together. There is also an increased risk to privacy where data sources are released by multiple agencies; while governments are very protective of citizen information, the aggregation of multiple disparate data sets could lead to unintended results. This has already occurred in the US as a result of separate departmental releases culminating in individuals being able to be identified when joined, though not in each of the releases.

The risks of the disparate release approach can be reduced through centralising the management of data and information. A centralised approach provides consistent practices, collection of expertise, application of policy, security management, and the opportunity to ensure data standards through a schema is developed and applied. The US has already recognised this requirement and is currently developing a set of data elements to ensure standardisation through what is known as the “DATA.

There is another large benefit in centralising this data, which is Government departments will also be able to utilise this integrated information to ask questions they could not traditionally. The Department of Human Services has recently announced using the Australian Taxation Office data to identify discrepancies with the citizens they service. This is beneficial to the public as will it not only help ensure claims are not exceeded intentionally, there will also be the benefit of avoiding unnecessary debt for recipients and also the opportunity to identify those who are entitled to more. Now start to add the data from departments like Health, Immigration and Border Protection to name a few and consider what benefits this integrated data could provide. With a richer image of the public, the results of policy can be more actively accessed and government interactions can be more targeted and specific to an individual’s needs. Not only does this assist in ensuring the right people get the right help within the intent of the policy, there are also efficiencies for Government with reduced costs in communicating to small targeted groups rather than mass broadcasting.

Australia is taking the rights steps forward to continue increasing transparency and openness. The sharing of data will ultimately lead to a better informed community and new opportunities being identified that benefit the country as a whole. After all, isn’t government is about providing the community with a best environment to succeed.

Ensuring the potential benefit of this valuable information is realised while appropriately managed and released efficiently and effectively will be the upcoming challenge.

Craig Jones’ role as an Industry Consultant based in Canberra is to assist client’s with identifying, articulating and implementing analytics to enable business improvement. He has a broad range of government agency experience in IT, project management roles and as an IT Auditor. These previous roles include the management of the Teradata instance at Customs and being the Program Director for part of the implementation of SmartGate (biometrics at the border). Craig has a strong interest in the opportunities that integrated data and the unified data architecture provide for Government in their service to the community.

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