Civil servants’ incentives in Open Data

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Author: Jose Mª Subero Munilla

IT Adviser at the Aragón Government. PhD Civil Engineer in the study field: Transport Infrastructures and Land Planning. Master in Public Administration. As part of the innovation department of the Aragón Government I manage its open data project. We have launched some initiatives in the open data project as the open data portal, the open budget portal, the social networws monitoring service, the semantic web project AragoPedia or the Jacathon meeting. I am also professor at the “city management” Master of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Previously I have been directly related with urban and land planning both at the public and private sector. 

There is no question; open data is a hot topic inside governments. There are lots of events about open data, as this upcoming IODC16, worldwide are lots of initiatives trying to publish the data of governments, as our Aragón Open Data project, there are funds in many international institutions, as the EU, etc.

As all we know, or at least we are starting to know, that open data have some important effects in society and related with social and economical improvements. Open data improves transparency in governments and is a key issue to achieve a better accountability. Furthermore, open data is an important asset for digital economy and enterprises needs to handle with governmental data to foster new business and to improve the efficiency of traditional business. Even inside governments we are starting to understand the importance to re-use our own information and to have accurate and real time data to improve our performance with citizens.

But although we need all these open data improvements, do we know something about people who are providing the data? Do we know why government employees are offering their data? And the most important question, do we really know which incentives civil servants have to ease the publishing procedures? Do they have any incentive? These are tough questions and we think that open data managers have to start thinking about it.

If we take a look to civil servants incentives, we can see that economically there is no incentive at all, they are not going to earn more money just easing data publication. In terms of tasks developed, a civil servant who is cooperating with open data initiatives usually will have some extra work, at least initially. Even worst, a civil servant who is publishing the data that is managing will have some extra risks. This civil servant will be exposing his job in terms of quality of the data that he is managing or in terms of the possible mistakes that could be in their databases. So, at a first sight, publishing data is not the best business for a civil servant.

But, far away from these facts, in Aragón Open Data we can see that there are many civil servants that are willing to publish their data, literally calling us. The amount of functional areas of the government who are publishing their data are increasing continuously. Therefore there have to be some hidden incentives that are fostering the publishing process, but which are these hidden incentives? In order to improve open data policies we have to be really interested in make them explicit.

This is an open question; we have some intuitions, but we do not have a proper answer. The truth is that civil servants call us to publish data and they are not asking for something instead. In my point of view there are some facts underneath open data that make civil servants think that open data is a “good thing” for society and fosters them to publish their data and to expose themselves publicly. So I really think that they are making an effort for doing the right thing.

You can see this fact properly if you compare open data with other hot topics related with technology as big data, internet of things or smart cities. Civil servants are skeptical if you tell them that they need to improve their computational infrastructure or that there has to be some sensor installed to have better information. But if you tell them that they have to publish their data, as raw as possible, they will agree with you in terms of offer information to citizens and enterprises. In the life of Aragón Open Data initiative, that is 3 years old, I haven’t found anyone who has told me that he does not want to publish his data. Some civil servants can have some doubts about the quality of their data, personal data concerns, their bosses’ attitude to publication and other issues related with the publishing procedure, but you can work with these problems and you can solve them in terms to offer guaranties to civil servants and to make them feel confident about the publication process. But, as I have said, in the whole life of Aragón Open Data, nobody has said “no” to publish and every day we are finding employees who are willing to publish the information.

This positive impact on people’s mind and on civil servants mind is an advantage that has to be taken into consideration, seriously taken into consideration. Meanwhile other governmental initiatives are considered just part of the political game, open data has some principles in it that transcend to regular policies. At the open data initiatives we have to be aware of this and try to connect with these superior feelings that everyday attracts civil servants to publish their data, even it is not “efficient” for them.

As an open issue for the next years, I think that we have to find explicitly the incentives that civil servants have to publish their data and that somehow we have to reward them personally. This will introduce even more incentives in the open data publishing procedures just to be sure that publication is a live stream. Civil servants are usually forgotten in terms of workflow, but if we want a real open data policy, as citizens are the centre of open data front-end, civil servants have to be the centre of the open data back-end. Obviously, to achieve this target, we need to identify more and better incentives for them. So this is the challenge.

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