In this piece the OECD shares how its new report “The Path to Becoming a Data-Driven Public Sector” provides the practical framing for governments to maximize the opportunities, and mitigate the risks, associated with putting data at the heart of achieving better policies for better lives.

July, 17 2020   |   Marcos Bonturi, Barbara Ubaldi & Benjamin Welby

It is impossible to overstate the importance of digitalization, data and technology to society. The opportunities they create, and issues they raise, reach into every corner of day-to-day life. From the way we consume entertainment to how we track global events, keep in touch with family and friends, or monitor our own health, no area is untouched by raised expectations on one hand and the potential for dystopian alarm on the other.

In the public sector, these advances can transform the mundane processing of documents or routing of requests, as well as paving the way for cutting-edge innovation like speeding up medical diagnoses, automating public transport or the real-time detection of criminal threats. This can bring tangible value to citizens and produce positive spillovers on public trust. Nevertheless, governments must keep pace with the expectations of their citizens while tackling budget pressures and new policy challenges. Failing to adapt to this changing environment can potentially damage public trust.

Trust is critical. It is foundational to the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems as well as a valuable contributor to citizen well-being.

Many OECD countries saw a decline in the trust of public institutions following the global financial crisis and the seeming inability of government to respond to natural disasters, or address corruption, tax evasion and other signs of weak respect for the rule of law. This situation is improving, with the level of trust among OECD citizens having now returned to pre-crisis levels of 45%, up from a low of 37% in 2013.


We need to move beyond e-government: Digital government

The use of digital government approaches can maintain this trend. Improving responsiveness, access and quality of public services, as well as re-designing ways to solve old problems, can meet raised expectations and as a result strengthen public trust. A recent working paper from our Digital Government and Open Government Data team argued that digital government approaches improve the well-being of citizens through helping government be more responsive, protective and trustworthy.

The distinction between “digital government” and “e-government” is at the core of a new way of thinking about the design, delivery and accessibility of public policies and services. E-government had a technology-focused approach to efficiency and transparency, which often resulted in moving bureaucracy from one channel to another. Digital government focuses on using technology and data to re-design services and processes in ways that better meet the needs of users. These efforts go hand in hand with establishing digital-by-design ideas that transform the behaviors of an organization to encourage an open and user-driven mindset. Technology is therefore a background enabler, woven into the ongoing activity of government, rather than the driver of transformation.


Making the “data-driven public sector” a reality

More than 10 years have passed since a group of open government advocates gathered to develop the first principles for open government data (OGD). Since then, important efforts have advocated for OGD with the resulting publication of datasets stimulating private sector innovation, providing opportunities for the economy at large and increasing government accountability. Such ideas of openness, transparency and engagement strongly complement digital government approaches and are particularly important in building trust. The 2019 edition of the OECD’s Open, Useful and Re-usable data (OURdata) Index shows countries continuing their efforts to strengthen OGD outcomes.

There are also indications that countries are addressing the internal challenges of becoming a “data-driven public sector.” The long-standing recognition that data sharing can enable governments to better serve the needs of citizens has produced basic data registers offering the technical foundations for a more efficient, integrated public sector.

However, we are not yet in the age of data-driven government.

To make such an aspiration a reality requires governments to go beyond the technical aspects and focus on three challenges:

  1. How can they lead and govern the use of data?
  2. How is value generated from the use of data?
  3. How can their use of data build, rather than threaten, the trust of the public?

The OECD’s recent report The Path to Becoming a Data-Driven Public Sector introduces a framework to help individual public sector organizations and governments do that in three areas of focus.


Area of focus 1: Implement sound and coherent data governance frameworks that encourage cohesive data policies, clear responsibilities, scalable data infrastructures and standards as a means to removing barriers to managing, sharing and re-using data within and across public sectors and governments.

Data governance requires a cross-government, coherent and holistic approach at strategic, tactical and operational levels to build the conditions for achieving the promise of a truly data-driven public sector.

Strategically, it means securing the necessary leadership and vision to ensure direction and purpose for the data-driven conversation throughout the public sector. This means supporting the development of crosscutting data strategies and policies that recognize both open and closed data with action-oriented implementation plans. Accountability can be placed on individual roles like a national level Chief Data Officer or a shared, collaborative body such as a Government Data Task Force.

Tactically, it sets two priorities. First, developing the capacities for implementation: thinking through how the agenda is managed and coordinated across the public sector; identifying teams and roles with responsibility for data within organizations; and meeting data-related skills and training needs. Second, putting in place, or revisiting, the necessary regulations covering rules, guidelines and standards associated with data.

Operationally it requires action to ensure that data architectures reflect standards, interoperability and semantics related to the generation, collection, storage and processing of data. Equally important is the data infrastructure to support the publication, sharing and re-use of data, including catalogues, sources of reliable data and ensuring access, whether through APIs or data sharing arrangements.


Area of focus 2: Apply data in the ongoing work of government to anticipate, plan, deliver and monitor public policies and services, and overall performance

Good data governance creates the conditions to start actively using data to create, or increase, public value according to three areas of activity:

  1. Anticipation and planning: enabling the design of policies, planning of interventions, anticipation of possible change and forecasting of needs.
  2. Delivery: informing and improving the implementation of policy, responsiveness of government and provision of public services.
  3. Evaluation and monitoring: measuring impact, auditing decisions and monitoring performance.

These areas of activity are not isolated from one another. An understanding of how data can shape future planning, present delivery and retrospective evaluation at any point in the design, delivery and implementation lifecycle will support an iterative, continuously improving approach to the effectiveness of government.


Area of focus 3: Put data rights, privacy and fair use at the core of data-driven policies to ensure the use of data builds, rather than threatens, public trust

Establishing good data governance and using data effectively will deliver better quality services that are more inclusive of, and responsive to, the needs of the public and consequently strengthen public trust in government. This is not a casual outcome: trust in government is easier to lose than it is to build and is particularly sensitive to the way in which governments handle their citizens’ data and are capable of meeting their needs.

Therefore, governments should take practical steps to mitigate these risks, including:

  • Defining, publishing and enshrining ethical frameworks that guide the behavior of public servants and commercial suppliers.
  • Developing regulatory frameworks that protect privacy on citizen terms.
  • Designing the user experiences around how citizens understand and grant consent for their data to be used.
  • Being transparent about how a citizen’s data are being used.
  • Developing ways that allow for citizens to maintain their data and grant or revoke consent around its usage.
  • Adopting approaches to the security of government services and data that mitigate risk whilst still enabling the transformation of the public sector.


How would we recognize a data-driven public sector?

A government implementing a data-driven model would demonstrate clear progress in five areas:

  • Data would be recognized and governed as a key strategic asset with its value defined and the impact of its use measured.
  • There would be ongoing and active efforts to remove any barriers to managing, sharing and re-using data by, and between, all actors. This would unlock internal use and further support the open government data community.
  • The use of data would be transforming the design, delivery and monitoring of public policies and services.
  • Efforts to publish data openly would be valued alongside similar efforts to encourage its use between and within public sector organizations.
  • The digital rights of citizens around data would be understood in terms of ethical behaviors, transparency of its usage, and protection of privacy and security.


Can we help you?

The OECD supports governments in rethinking their role, scope of activity and ways of working in light of digital transformation. We help countries recognize the importance of embedding emerging technologies and trends in public sector reform agendas so the policy design process enables new ways of interacting between the state and its citizens and businesses.

If unlocking the value of your data is something you’d like to see in your country or organization then we’d love to hear from you.


Marcos Bonturi is Director for Public Governance at the OECD. Barbara Ubaldi is Digital Government and Open Data Lead at the OECD and Associate Professor of Digital Government at Sciences Po. Benjamin Welby is a Policy Analyst at the Digital Government Unit, Public Governance Directorate, OECD.

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