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4 min

Reflection — Do the Open Data and Transparency Communities Really Practice What They Preach?

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Written by
Published on
December 7, 2017

This blog was written and edited by our community members.

How can we tell others to be more open when we aren’t open within our organizations?

Confession: I work at an open data organization and for the most part, we do not work in the open. It is apparent that my organization suffers from many of the same challenges in information management that those non-open-data organizations do as well. We seek stories of open data success, of working in the open and of transparency, when in reality, we can’t even be a success story of transformative change toward openness within our own organization. We are well-resourced, well-funded and well-educated. If the most resourceful person cannot, will not, or is not motivated to make the changes internally, how can we expect anyone else to so?

I initially wrote this for Open Heroines Bad Bosses blog: “A bad leader does not practice what they preach.” Therefore, if open data is so valuable, so crucial for innovation, development and progress, why doesn’t the organization first ensure that they themselves are transparent and open both internally and externally?

Why? Because it’s hard. The same reason why it’s so easy to give others advice rather than follow it yourself. Because the culture of being closed is so insidious and inherent; we all have bad habits. Bad habits like saving files on our desktop instead of the shared folder or forgetting to cc someone in a conversation that they should be part of. These may seem like small, unimportant incidents but they represent something bigger. An inertia barring the way to being open.

Being ‘open’ means putting stuff out there for critique, for reflection. It means embracing vulnerability. Sadly, a lot of leaders in the ‘open’ spaces are not in that state of mind yet.

Balancing transparency and accountability

Perhaps a lot of it has to do with fear of the unknown and fear of change. Incentives toward transparency for many governments and industries mainly focus on how they are judged externally. It’s all about optics. A food retailer hopes that they will gain a more loyal customer base and a government may hope to increase citizens satisfaction in government if they are transparent.

But with transparency comes accountability. One should not exist without the other. As an open data community, we could discuss the options. Could an organization ‘be transparent’ but be allowed to learn from mistakes without fear of the immediate repercussions? Is it fair to let, say a large food company, go without media coverage or financial consequences for a year to let them sort out a slavery issue they emerged from open data? Or should organizations and companies accept that something will always crop up and how they manage announcements and sustaining friendly, positive relationships with stakeholders is what will get them through rough patches?

We need to stop separating what we expect from other organizations (increase transparency, open their data) from what we expect from ourselves and our organizations. And we need others to hold ourselves to account for open data / open gov organizations. I’ll ask you this: if you work in an open data organization (or even if you don’t!), how do you work in the open? Has it always been that way, or have you and your colleagues had to work for it?

How to trigger internal transformative change toward openness?

Leaders of organizations need to be bold and implement some new ways of working. After all, if they want to lead an open data organization, they must “practice what they preach.” They need to learn from their mistakes and failures, learn from others, take accountability, and hold others to account (gently). Funders of open data initiatives should push for this also while exploring ways to improve transparency themselves.

The example of leadership in transparency is simple — we as NGOs need to lead by example.

We can actually learn from the private sector here. Buffer, the social media tool, had a comprehensive transparency tool that shows not only the company revenue but also the staff salaries and the diversity of the team. Everlane, the fashion company, has a radical transparency initiative to show where their garments are coming from and revenue streams.

If we in the open data sphere want to promote equality and equity, steps like a diversity dashboard can help us make our own community accountable. It is more than just showing who is funding us. We need to take bold steps ourselves in order to make a change. Innovation in this field is on us.

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