Open Data and New Public Management

This morning I got an email thread pointing to an article by Justin Longo on #Opendata: Digital-Era Governance Thoroughbred or New Public Management Trojan Horse? I’m still digesting it all but wanted to share some initial thoughts.

The article begins with discussion about the benefits of open data but its real goal is to argue how open data is a pawn in a game to revive the New Public Management Reform Agenda:

My hypothesis, based on a small but growing number of examples highlighting political support for open data, is that some advocates—particularly politicians, but not exclusively—are motivated by beliefs (both explicit and unconscious) forged in the New Public Management (NPM) reform agenda.

From this perspective, support for more open data aims at building coalitions of citizen consumers who are encouraged to use open data to expose public service decisions, highlight perceived performance issues, increase competition within the public sector, and strengthen the hand of the citizen as customer.

What I found disappointing is the article’s one dimensional approach to the problem: open data may support a theory/approach to public management disliked by the author, consequently (inferring from the article’s title and tone) it must be bad. This is akin to saying any technology that could be used to advance an approach I don’t support, must be opposed.

In addition, I’d say that the idea of exposing public service decisions, highlighting perceived performance issues, increasing competition within the public sector, and strengthening the hand of the citizen as customer are goals I don’t necessarily oppose, certainly not categorically. Moreover, I would hope such goals are not exclusively the domain of NPM. Do we want a society where government’s performance issues are not highlighted? Or where public service decisions are kept secret?

These are not binary choices. You can support the outcomes highlighted above and simultaneously believe in other approaches to public sector management and/or be agnostic about the size of government. Could open data be used to advance NPM? Possibly (although I’m doubtful). But it definitely can also be used to accomplish a lot of other good and potentially advance other approaches as well. Let’s not conflate a small subset of ways open data can be used or a small subset of its supporters with the entire project and then to lump them all into a single school of thought around public service management.

Moreover, I’ve always argued that the biggest users and benefactors of open data would be government – and in particular the public service. While open data could be used to build “coalitions of citizen consumers who are encouraged to use open data to expose public service decisions” it will also be used by public servants to better understand citizens needs, be more responsive and allocate resources more effectively. Moreover, those “citizen consumers” will probably be effective in helping them achieve this task. The alternative is to have better shared data internally (which will eventually happen), an outcome that might allow the government to achieve these efficiencies but will also radically increase the asymmetry in the relationship between the government and its citizens and worse, between the elites that do have privileged access to this data, and the citizenry (See Taggart below).

So ignoring tangible benefits because of a potential fear feels very problematic. It all takes me back to Kevin Kelly and What Technology Wants… this is an attempt to prevent an incredibly powerful technology because of a threat it poses to how the public sector works. Of course, it presumes that a) you can prevent the technology and b) that not acting will allow the status quo or some other preferred approach to prevail. Again, there are outcomes much, much worse the NPM that are possible (again, I don’t believe that open data leads directly to NPM) and I would argue, indeed likely, given evolving public expectations, demographics, and fiscal constraints.

In this regard, the article sets of up a false choice. Open data is going to reshape all theories of public management. To claim it supports or biases in favour of one outcome is, I think beyond premature. But more importantly, it is to miss the trees for the forest and the much bigger fish we need to fry. The always thoughtful Chris Taggart summed much of this up beautifully in an email thread:

I think the title — making it out to be a choice between a thoroughbred or Trojan Horse — says it all. It’s a false dichotomy, as neither of those are what the open data advocates are suggesting it is, nor do most of us believe that open data is solution to all our problems (far from it — see some of my presentations[1]).

It also seems to offer a choice between New Public Management (which I think Emer Coleman does a fairly good job of illuminating in her paper[2]) and the brave new world of Digital Era Governance, which is also to misunderstand the changes being brought about in society, with or without open government data.
The point is not that open data is the answer to our problem but society’s chance to stay in the game (and even then, the odds are arguably against it). We already have ever increasing numbers of huge closed databases, many made up of largely government data, available to small number of people and companies.
This leads to an asymmetry of power and friction that completely undermines democracy; open data is not a sufficiency to counteract that, but I think it is a requirement.

It’s possible I’ve misunderstood Longo’s article and he is just across the straights at the University of Victoria, so hopefully we can grab a beer and talk it through. But my sense is this article is much more about a political battle between New Public Management and Digital Era Governance in which open data is being used as a pawn. As an advocate, I’m not wholly comfortable with that, as I think it risks misrepresenting it.

3 thoughts on “Open Data and New Public Management

  1. Doug Hadden

    Your points are bang-on. I’m in the public financial management space. This interpretation that open gov is re-branded NPM is an awful stretch. The relationship envisioned in NPM is very much pre-Web 2 and not considering the cumulative network effects of open government.

    Advocates of open data are unlikely to contemplate the public management effects. It’s more about the economic benefits of ‘government as platform’ or efficiency and effectiveness in government, not how about reform.

    Advocates of transparency tend to promote notions of accountability and reduction of corruption. Not specifically about reform.

    My sense is that open gov and government 2.0 are seen as mechanisms to deal with efficient communications and collaboration to solve wicked problems, but no in the sense envisioned by NPM. We are only beginning to see the implications of transparency on governance. The effect are likely to be less structural and more surprising than anything NPM advocates wer thinking.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Link Roundup (weekly) | Jon Stahl's Journal

  3. Justin Longo

    David – thanks for these excellent and insightful comments on my paper. I’m quite sure that in my search for a hidden agenda in the open data movement has found the proverbial non-existent black hat in a dark room that doesn’t exist. But it was fun looking for it. And I think your closing comment sums it up brilliantly: I’m more interested in Dunleavy et als. DEG / NPM battle, and it’s too bad that open data suffered collateral damage. Cheers, Justin.


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