This article is a good description of the Freedom of Information (#foia #opengov #opendata) situation in the Balkans. Due to my work in the region, I recognise lots of what is described here. My work in the region, such as in Serbia, has let me encounter various institutions willing to use evasive action to prevent the release of information.

In essence this is not all that different from what (decentral) government entities in other European countries do as well. Many of them still see increased transparency and access as a distraction absorbing work and time they’d rather spend elsewhere. Yet, there’s a qualitative difference in the level of obstruction. It’s the difference between acknowledging there is a duty to be transparant but being hesitant, and not believing that there’s such a duty in governance at all.

Secrecy, sometimes in combination with corruption, has a long and deep history. In Central Asia for instance I encountered an example that the number of agricultural machines wasn’t released, as a 1950’s Soviet law still on the books marked it as a state secret (because tractors could be mobilised in case of war). More disturbingly such state secrecy laws are abused to tackle political opponents in Central Asia as well. When a government official releases information based on a transparency regulation, or as part of policy implementation, political opponents might denounce them for giving away state secrets and take them to court risking jail time even.

There is a strong effort to increase transparency visible in the Balkan region as well. Both inside government, as well as in civil society. Excellent examples exist. But it’s an ongoing struggle between those seeing power as its own purpose and those seeking high quality governance. We’ll see steps forward, backwards, rear guard skirmishes and a mixed bag of results for a long time. Especially there where there are high levels of distrust amongst the wider population, not just towards government but towards each other.

One such excellent example is the work of the Serbian information commissioner Sabic. Clearly seeing his role as an ombudsman for the general population, he and his office led by example during the open data work I contributed to in the past years. By publishing statistics on information requests, complaints and answer times, and by publishing a full list of all Serbian institutions that fall under the remit of the Commission for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. This last thing is key, as some institutions will simply stall requests by stating transparency rules do not apply to them. Mr. Sabic’s term ended at the end of last year. A replacement for his position hasn’t been announced yet, which is both a testament to Mr Sabic’s independent role as information commissioner, and to the risk of less transparency inclined forces trying to get a much less independent successor.

Bookmarked Right to Know: A Beginner’s Guide to State Secrecy / Balkan Insight by Dusica Pavlovic (Balkan Insight)

Governments in the Balkans are chipping away at transparency laws to make it harder for journalists and activists to hold power to account.

I very much disagree, as deep and rich parts of our social lives only exist because our myriad of online interactions and manifest themselves most definitely in our offline lives, are indistinguishable from it.

But I get the sentiment, as endlessly scrolling in your FB or other timelines is indeed taking you out of your life. That addictive and numbing timeline is a dark pattern worth breaking.

Online = Offlife

Found on a wall in Novi Sad, Serbia.

This week I am in Novi Sad for the plenary of the Assembly of European Regions. Novi Sad is the capitol of the Vojvodina, a member region, and the host for the plenary meetings of the AER.

I took part in a panel to discuss the opportunities of open data at regional level. The other panelists were my Serbian UNDP colleague Slobodan Markovic, Brigitte Lutz of the Vienna open data portal (whom I hadn’t met in years), Margreet Nieuwenhuis of the European open data portal, and Geert-Jan Waasdorp who uses open data about the European labour market commercially.

Below are the notes I used for my panel contributions:

Open data is a key building block for any policy plan. The Serbian government certainly treats it as such, judging by the PM’s message we just heard, and the same should be true for regional governments.

Open data from an organisational stand point is only sustainable if it is directly connected to primary policy processes, and not just an additional step or effort after the ‘real’ work has been done. It’s only sustainable if it means something for your own work as regional administration.

We know that open data allows people and organisations to take new actions. These by themselves or in aggregate have impact on policy domains. E.g. parents choosing schools for their children or finding housing, multimodal route planning, etc.

So if you know this effect exists, you can use it on purpose. Publish data to enable external stakeholders. You need to ask yourself: around which policy issues do you want to enable more activity? Which stakeholders do you want to enable or nudge? Which data will be helpful for that, if put into the hands of those stakeholders?

This makes open data a policy instrument. Next to funding and regulation, publishing open data for others to use is a way to influence stakeholder behaviour. By enabling them and partnering with them.
It is actually your cheapest policy instrument, as the cost of data collection is always a sunk cost as part of your public task

Positioning open data this way, as a policy instrument, requires building connections between your policy issues, external stakeholders and their issues, and the data relevant in that context.

This requires going outside and listen to stakeholders and understand the issues they want to solve, the things they care about. You need to avoid making any assumptions.

We worked with various regional governments in the Netherlands, including the two Dutch AER members Flevoland and Gelderland. With them we learned that having those outside conversations is maybe the hardest part. To create conversations between a policy domain expert, an internal data expert, and the external stakeholders. There’s often a certain apprehension to reach out like that and have an open ended conversation on equal footing. From those conversations you learn different things. That your counterparts are also professionals interested in achieving results and using the available data responsibly. That the ways in which others have shaped their routines and processes are usually invisible to you, and may be surprising to you.
In Flevoland there’s a program for large scale maintenance on bridges and water locks in the coming 4 years. One of the provincial aims was to reduce hindrance. But an open question was what constitutes hindrance to different stakeholders. Only by talking to e.g. farmers it became clear that the maintenance plans themselves were less relevant than changes in those plans: a farmer rents equipment a week before some work needs to be done on the fields. If within that week a bridge unexpectedly becomes blocked, it means he can’t reach his fields with the rented equipment and damage is done. Also relevant is exploring which channels are useful to stakeholders for data dissemination. Finding channels that are used already by stakeholders or channels that connect to those is key. You can’t assume people will use whatever special channel you may think of building.

Whether it is about bridge maintenance, archeology, nitrate deposition, better usage of Interreg subsidies, or flash flooding after rain fall, talking about open data in terms of innovation and job creation is hollow and meaningless if it is not connected to one of those real issues. Only real issues motivate action.

Complex issues rarely have simple solutions. That is true for mobility, energy transition, demographic pressure on public services, emission reduction, and everything else regional governments are dealing with. None of this can be fixed by an administration on its own. So you benefit from enabling others to do their part. This includes local governments as stakeholder group. Your own public sector data is one of the easiest available enables in your arsenal.