Last Friday I participated in a study day of the Dutch and Belgian audit authorities (the Algemene Rekenkamer and the Rekenhof). Topic of discussion was how open data can play a role in audit work.

Noël van Herreweghe, the open data program manager of the Flemish government, first sketched the situation of open data in Flanders. Afterwards I talked about the current status of open data in the Netherlands, and the lessons learned about doing open data well from the past years. (see my slides embedded below)

A few elements that I think are relevant in the context of the work of audit authorities are:

  • current open data is mostly about what government knows, not about what government does. The latter is what matters to auditors however. More transactional data is needed, maybe from the back-end of e-government services.
  • open data can be a pre-hypothesis tool, showing patterns that generate questions or give direction to/ help focus audits on areas where it matters most.
  • open data can be used to assess impact of policies, also/specifically/even when the data is not directly describing a certain policy area, but serves as a proxy from further down the chain of causality.
  • And then there is the many-eyes aspect of open data of course: if there is a ‘scandal’ hiding in the data, it may be found more easily through increased eyeballs (although there might be more false positives/noise as well).

    We split up in groups and rotated through three short workshops exploring these notions. One session where specific audit questions were connected (or attempted) to open data sources which could contain pointers, and stakeholders involved. One session showing how free open source online tools can help clean up and explore data and show first patterns. One session with a quick routine to brainstorm indicators that can be proxies for a certain question. In this case we looked at proxy indicators for the quality of school buildings. The Dutch court of audit is currently doing a pilot involving the collection of opinions as well as pictures as part of an audit, concerning the quality of school buildings.

    Recently I participated in a session of the Dutch permanent parliamentary commission on national spending, discussing open financial data. A good reason to give a quick update on open government spending data in the Netherlands.

    Current status of open spending
    Let’s give you a general overview of open spending in the Netherlands first. As you can see in the Open Data Census, open spending data is the single biggest missing chunk of data in the Netherlands. The national budget is available as open data, since 2012, thanks to the work of the Dutch national audit office, but only on an aggregated level. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is publishing transaction level data on international aid since 2012 as part of IATI, and is the only Dutch public sector body doing this. On a local level some aggregated spending data is available through the Open State Foundation‘s project openspending.nl. In the past months I have gathered local spending data from 25 local councils, and provided it to this project to make comparisons across local governments possible. In a current project with the Province of North-Holland, we are, in collaboration with 10 local governments, aiming to open up the spending data of 50+ local councils. There is no requirement, unlike in the UK, for government bodies to publish open spending data.

    Old Parliament
    The session took place in the old plenary meeting room of the Parliament

    National Audit Authority: Forwards with open spending!
    President of the National Audit Authority Saskia Stuiveling had the clearest message during the parliamentary committee meeting, in terms of general outlook as well as leading by example. Even for the audit authority it is often hard to get the right data to properly audit government spending. Opening up spending data by default will help them to concentrate on those parts of public policy where it matters most, e.g. health care spending. To lead by example the audit authority has opened up their own spending data this spring. They also published a ‘Trend Report Open Data‘ tracking the open data efforts of all Ministries, and urging them to do more. Opening up data is becoming a standard advice given in all their audit reports. In other words they are building up pressure for Ministries to do more. (disclosure: I worked with the audit authority on the trend report open data)

    Foreign Affairs: Open spending is useful instrument
    The Ministry for Foreign Affairs presented itself as a proponent of more financial transparency. Having started publishing open spending data on international development in 2012, they will be launching a (Tableau) based viewer for that data on June 11th, which includes the possibility to drill down to project level information and can link to external sources such as project descriptions published by NGO’s. A viewer like this serves as a replacement for yearly paper based reporting, makes a step towards visualizing impact and not just spending, as well as is a means to motivate more NGO’s towards bigger spending transparency.

    Finance Ministry: following Audit Authority’s lead
    The Finance Ministry until now has done little towards open spending, but during the session in the Parliament they showed how the work done by the audit authority mentioned above has prodded them into action as well. Triggered by the open data trend report last March, they have now opened up aggregated spending for the first time (update from Rense Posthumus in the comments: data is located at opendata.rijksbegroting.nl). Also the Finance Ministry announced that subsidies data and basic financial data of independent government agencies is available in a viewer in sneak preview, though no URL was given yet. It wasn’t indicated when this would be made publicly available. (UPDATE: see comment by Rense Posthumus) The plan to publish departmental spending for all ministries by 2016 was announced, but made dependent on ‘creating a standard reporting method’ first. That met with resistance in the audience: if the data is good enough for the Finance Ministry to work with, why isn’t it good enough to publish? That argument did seem to resonate with the Ministry director present.

    Interior Affairs: very disappointing
    A very disappointing contribution was made by the Ministry for the Interior’s deputy director-general. This Ministry is nominally responsible for the open government and open data efforts of the government, as well as in the lead to reform the Freedom of Information Act in light of the new EU Directive on the re-use of public sector information, but in this session showed a shocking lack of vision and no will to act. In 20 minutes nothing was said about open government at all, leaving the attending Members of Parliament confused. Even the actions the Ministry hás taken, such as the launch of the national data portal in 2011, and joining the Open Government Partnership (albeit with an Action Plan that adroitly avoids formulating action), weren’t mentioned. From this presentation one can only conclude that nothing much can be expected from this Ministry in the near future. This means other public sector bodies are left largely to their own devices, which is a shame as it means lots of time will be lost clearing up confusion and raising the general level of knowledge on how to do open government data well. The Ministry for the Interior, being in charge of the open government dossier, is the only one inside government who could claim a much needed role of ‘lighthouse’ and beacon for established good practice, but they’re not on the ball, nor seem to aim to be.