I used to assume that governance reform failures were the result of leaders’ bad intentions. Coming from the open data advocacy world, it seemed that there’s a lack of political will for governments to be open, even when politicians’ campaigns tout their investment in transparency. An analysis of 28 African countries by the public finance expert Matt Andrews, for example, showed far more transparency during budget formulation than in execution. This kind of sleight-of-hand leads many of us to view our government counterparts as antagonists rather than partners.

Yet over the years, I’ve realized that politicians’ intentions are not always the limiting factor in reforming governance. I’ve sought out and partnered with reform-minded government officials, and in these cases, the thorniest problems were embedded in the institutions themselves: Arcane systems and cultures that often enable bad intentions and constrain good ones.

A primary school class is held in a local community town hall while the govt builds a new “model school” in Ahoada West, Rivers State, Nigeria. Many students had not been attending due to lack of space. Photograph: Adam Talsma.
A primary school class is held in a local community town hall while the govt builds a new “model school” in Ahoada West, Rivers State, Nigeria. Many students had not been attending due to lack of space. Photograph: Adam Talsma.

Open data holds promise for improving these systems, but it won’t really work without institutional reform, which is never easy or quick. To see results, we can start with improving open data programs themselves by finding the right “good intentions” to act on — that is, targeted reform opportunities. When reform-minded political leadership, a prioritized political investment, and influential civic accountability actors align, open data programs have much better chances of achieving the incremental steps needed for reform.

I recently saw a powerful example of open data as a two-way information channel during a project in Nigeria. We were working with a team at the World Bank, as well as an advocacy organization that wanted to track government investment in local school projects. The local Ministry of Education was already using a public website to share up-to-date data about the results of a “model schools” initiative. But many citizens were justifiably suspicious after years of what they saw as government mismanagement and neglect. The advocacy organization, the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform (NDCBP), set out to confirm the government’s data by gathering a new dataset of its own.

We helped NDCBP gather data about the quality and progress of school construction, using a representative sample of the some-200 projects. NDCBP had a rather antagonistic history with the government, so we also worked with them to move from throwing stones to bringing hard evidence to engage government counterparts in constructive conversation. The new dataset was the start of an ongoing conversation that increased the grassroots voice in decisions about education spending. Even when the new governor’s administration began in 2015, the Ministry included NDCBP in evaluating the outcomes of the prior regime’s education policies and advising on which to carry forward and how. NDCBP was the only civil society organization included. Thus, open data was a tool for accountability as well as to facilitate productive communication between citizens and government.

In our investigation of over 200 schools, surveyors visited school locations and asked basic questions about each, starting with whether or not it actually existed. This “non-model” school in Rivers State, Nigeria had seen minimal maintenance and children used the floor for desks. Photograph: Reboot.
In our investigation of over 200 schools, surveyors visited school locations and asked basic questions about each, starting with whether or not it actually existed. This “non-model” school in Rivers State, Nigeria had seen minimal maintenance and children used the floor for desks. Photograph: Reboot.

Data can be a powerful tool for change, so any delay in the implementation of open data programs can look deliberate. But the truth is that opening data is filled with immense, and legitimate, logistical and legal hurdles. Where technology moves quickly, institutional integration is a methodical, lumbering process. Open data programs should set realistic expectations and programming with the intention of supporting incremental institutional change.

And through collaboration, not antagonism, we will set important precedents for colleagues both in government and civil society around the world. After all, the field is new, and many of us are figuring out how to do things for the first time. The processes and standards we set will have impact far beyond our individual careers. Let’s instill more listening, more empathy, and more collaboration into the process now. It’s the best way to turn our own good intentions into results.