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Open insights is the next step to Open Data

Kenneth Abante's picture
One must think of government data like a matchstick; it must be taken out of its box and lit. The first step to generating public trust in a government institution is to show it has nothing to hide. The disclosure of data, or Open Data, is a public-private partnership for solving social issues transparently.
 
However, more than establishing moral authority, Open Data  also gives public institutions deeper insight and understanding into their own operations. Moving a step further, voluntarily disclosing not just data in comma separated values or excel spreadsheets, but insights -- even weaknesses -- to the public, can accelerate change across institutions and society. I say this with a caveat: disclosure should be made with a nuanced message, such as the acknowledgment of data and its limitations, the humility to accept limitations as an agency with scarce time and resources, and the courage to come up with clear steps for implementation. In the Philippines, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima echoes this, noting that “We must be the first to admit our weaknesses.” Open Insights is the next logical step to Open Data.
 
Since 2013, the Philippines’  Department of Finance (DOF) has published more than 100 weekly full-page ads* in national newspapers and social media containing data nuggets such as: “Doctors pay less taxes than a public school teacher,” “The weighted average declared price of imported spam was only 5 pesos ($0.10) at the customs border,” “Only 3 in every 10 local treasurers complied with local treasury reporting standards with some local governments failing three times in a row at our scorecard,The "Tax Watch" campaign by the DOF Fiscal Intelligence Unit in partnership with revenue-generating bureaus has produced insights that drove public discourse on tax, customs, and local finance over the past two years. Saying all this in national papers came with risks, including public outrage, but such is the friction required in lighting matches.



So far, it has been able to show the way and deliver results: 
  • Tax collections from professionals increased by 14%, which could potentially fund the equivalent annual salaries of 21,000 nurses for the Department of Health; 
  • We have filed tax cases against canned meat importers;
  • Local treasurer reporting compliance increased from 30% in 2014 to 90% in 2015, with the public disclosure of fiscal sustainability scorecards of 1,477 municipalities, 144 cities, and 80 provinces. 
  • Customs, by releasing open data on the import entry level, has become one of the most transparent agencies in government.
  • A team of young civil servants who formed the Bagumbayani Initiative and partnered with Kalibrr, a jobs-matching platform, made 3,600 vacancies of more than 6 government agencies available online, resulting in around 29,000 applications. 
These results were possible only when the disclosure of insights was coupled with the appropriate policies and enforcement mechanisms – the filing of tax evasion and smuggling cases, the imposition of penalties such as suspension for failure to comply with reporting standards, or the moral persuasion of possible exposure in national papers as reprimand. In fact, the DOF has weekly implementation cycles: the Department publishes a Tax Watch ad every Wednesday, and files a tax evasion, smuggling, or corruption case in court every Thursday**Open Data and Open Insights are futile without the commensurate policy response and the proper implementation. The support from the public must be used to drive reform efforts forward. Policy makers must act quickly, otherwise an impatient public can whittle agencies' political capital and public trust to pursue these reforms.
 
In a time of platforms, apps and smartphones, data like matchsticks must be taken out of their boxes and lit. Policymakers should embrace this trend and take calculated risks towards it. 

* The revenue generating bureaus are the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), the Bureau of Customs (BOC), and the Bureau of Local Government Finance (BLGF). The Analytics Team of the DOF Fiscal Intelligence Unit (DOF FIU), established in early 2013, compiles the data and distills the insights. An in-house graphic designer at the DOF Office of the Secretary converts these insights into full page ads and sends them to press every Wednesday.
 
** The anti-tax evasion, anti-smuggling and anti-corruption programs are respectively called, Run After Tax Evaders (RATE), Run After the Smugglers (RATS), and Revenue Integrity Protection Service (RIPS).

(​Kenneth Abante is the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Philippines's Secretary of Finance Cesar V. Purisima. )

Comments

Submitted by ADesai on

Dear Kenneth, I like your blog and found it be quite refreshing. As my main complaint with the open data movement is that it's largely been about supply side of data and often comes out as 'more data is better'. As you rightly pointed, average citizen cares more about the insights and what they can do with it. And then what the government is going to do about it. I would suggest that next in the chain should be 'Open Actions', followed by 'Open Impact'. So the chain should be something like this: Open Data > Open Insights > Open Actions > Open Impact. Best, Adarsh

PS Thanks to Hanif for sharing your blog.

Submitted by KennethAbante on

Hi Adarsh, thanks. I really like the way you present the "data value chain." Maybe there's a way to put this into practice in public policy (although I imagine there may be quite some problems with the Open Actions component):

Open Data - releasing xls and csv formats
Open Insights - communicating insights from Open Data for infographics and social media
Open Actions - actual enforcement measures, Orders and Circulars
Open Impact - quick feedback through reports, press releases

I mentioned in the article that the DOF has weekly implementation cycles for data, insights, and enforcement. The Secretary also told us to have a daily cycle time for press releases: he exhorts us to release a statement, press release, or article a day through the DOF website (www.dof.gov.ph), because every reform movement has a public information and media side (it adds to agencies' political capital to push reforms).

Another issue that we found, however, is that the message is not always interpreted the way we intend that it be communicated; but I guess this is the calculated risk agencies must take. I guess informing media as partners in this movement is another challenge. But I'm glad that initiatives like http://datajournalism2015.ph/ are present to try to bridge the gap.

Another way to mitigate risk might be to engage civil society organizations (CSOs) as watchdogs, similar to how Bottom Up Budgeting (http://www.dbm.gov.ph/?page_id=13331) helps organizations participate in the budget process. On the revenue side, we still have a long way to go to achieve this. But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic.

Submitted by Chris on

Yep. A bunch of spreadsheets or csv files, while better than not having that data at all, is of limited value without somebody putting context and a story around the data. Data is good, information is better.

Submitted by lookingfordata on

Hi Kenneth, why have you stopped publishing the consolidated public sector debt in your DOF statistics page? Some people find it a very useful statistic, and i haven't seen this data anywhere else except your website. I hope you and the DOF could bring it back!

Submitted by KENNETHABANTE on

Hello, LookingForData, apologies if you weren't able to see this during the December period. We recently migrated the beta version of our Open Data spreadsheets at the homepage of the DOF website via http://www.dof.gov.ph/ (scroll down to the DOF open data statistics section). You may also download the data set at http://opendata.dof.gov.ph/

Hope this helps!

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