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18/11/14 Civic Technology , Open Policy # , , , ,

Open Government Meets Journalism: Should A Public Administration Actively Involve Data Journalists?

Open Government Meets Journalism: Should A Public Administration Actively Involve Data Journalists?

According to a brutal definition, Data Journalism is “Journalism with Data“. Even though this data can come from a variety of sources, Open Government Data is seen as a gold mine. A data journalist could be interested, for example, in tracking crimes through local crime data or discovering specific episodes of corruption and misuse of public funding thanks to the data on public spending.

Now let’s see this from the perspective of the government. As more and more public sector organizations are venturing in the world of Open Government, the actual (re)use of their own Open Data is a measure of success of their strategy.  And there is no doubt that Data Journalism is one of the best examples of re-use of Open government Data that can create public value.

It’s fascinating to see how many public administrations around the world are now aiming to actively involve data journalists in their Open Government programs.  From my experience, this collaboration has taken three different forms so far:

  1. [SOFT] The staff of an Open Government program participates in “data journalism hackathons” or other events organized by journalists. The government employees offer their knowledge about the data and the data journalists find a story worth telling.
    This is what happened, for example, during the hackathon of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Representatives of some Italian Ministries first presented their data to the journalists and then stayed all day to answer their questions and work with them.
  2. [MEDIUM] The government offers “training sessions” to journalists. Sometimes the data are difficult to understand because a specific jargon is used or the policy is so complex that at least a basic knowledge of some technical aspects is essential. The events are held on the government premises and are aimed at providing the journalists with the “right tools” to analyze the data (how to create a map or an interactive graph) and to interpret it.
    For example, the European Commission recently organized a “school” for journalists focused on EU funds.
  3. [HARD] The government hires data journalists. A data journalist working for the government can assume the role of communication officer and create visualizations and articles based on the government’s communication strategy. This is the case of the French portal Gouvernement.fr that recently added an “infographics” section (“les infographies et videos”) and is now looking for data journalists to create eye-catchy visualizations and content.
    But journalists can also have different roles, especially when working for specific Open Government initiatives. For example, a data journalist is part of the team of OpenCoesione School, a special project that involves high school students in the development of an investigation on the use of public funding through open data.

 

In the last few days I noticed a couple of interesting tweets on this.

An initial reaction to the “Medium scenario” (government training journalists) takes into consideration the principle of independence. In a tweet, the civil servant and public policy expert Tito Bianchi said:

However, an evidence-based debate in the press is possible only if the data are not misinterpreted, and working with the sources of information is a key part of the game. In addition, journalists may have limited quantitative skills to analyze the data or limited knowledge of the technicalities of a specific public policy.  

As for the “Hard scenario” (government hiring journalists), the experienced data journalists Nicolas Kayser-Bril commented on the French case with these words:

Nonetheless, he added that this could be an option if the agencies that are hiring are “independent, state-financed authorities that can scrutinize gov’t action, such as ombudsman, transparency authorities, courts of auditors”.

 

Do you think that a public agency should proactively involve data journalists? In which forms? Are there some “special cases”?
Under what conditions should a journalist accept to collaborate with an Open Government program?

 

 

Photo by Ahmad Hammoud

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12/11/14 Open Policy # , ,

A (long) list of the risks of Open Government

A (long) list of the risks of Open Government

Open Knowledge has recently published its Report on the Open Knowledge Festival 2014 in Berlin.  One of the most interesting workshops was called “Can Open Data Go Wrong“, “a safe and private conversation space for all those who wish to share their experiences of open data snafus, ranging from hilarious to perilous, with the goal of transparently learning from our failures”. You can find the Etherpad of the session and the podcast including an interview with the organizers Mushon Zer-Aviv and Tin Geber.

Here I would like to start to write down a list of potential risks of Open Government and citizen participation. I know it’s a long list, but I will start from some basic items from a discussion we had yesterday in the “Government Information Strategy and Management” class at the Rockefeller College, State University of New York.


From the point of view of a senator of a OECD Country:

  • Media are more interested in my personal expenses than in tracking the real use and impact of public money
  • Trust in government decreases at a point that Democracy fails
  • Only the “usual suspects” participate in the consultation I promote
  • Very limited public value from OpenGov initiatives

From the point of view of the CIO of a public agency:

  • Open Data are misinterpreted
  • Infomediaries are not ready to understand my data and no “ecosystem” is created
  • Few people are (re)using my data
  • No “new Facebook” is created thanks to the last app contest I launched
  • I don’t have the money / tools / skills to process external input
  • Cases of real collaboration with citizens are very limited (other examples after Peer-to-Patent?)
  • I have no real collaboration with other agencies on data standards and interoperability, no data created “as ready to be published”
  • No money to spend on OpenGov

From the point of view of an Open Government advocate:

  • Some data are there, but are not really relevant. Transparency is only on trivial issues
  • Open Data are available but data are poor quality, aggregated, difficult to understand
  • Open Data are altered, manipulated
  • Open data as a “gift” from the government, not a right of the citizen
  • We scraped Open Government Data and created interactive visualizations but nothing happened, because:
    • people don’t know that our tool is available
    • people are not interested
    • people cannot interpret the data
  • Open Government tools empower who is already empowered
  • Government is not listening, game over.

 

Any other points to add?

 

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10/10/14 Digital Government , Research

Regional Governments and ICT policy coordination

Many regional governments in Italy have tried to solve the problem of coordinating different levels of government and different local ICT policies through the creation of ad-hoc public companies. These companies are owned by the regional government itself or by a consortium of local actors, and have the goal to ensure more flexibility and specific capacity in providing advanced services to provinces and municipalities. This raises questions about their actual efficiency and effectiveness.

A paper with Chiara Assunta Ricci provides a brief overview of recent e-government policies of the Italian regions with a focus on the coordination models between local actors. In particular, the role of regional information technology (IT) public companies is explored through a cluster analysis based on evidence from an ad hoc survey. Advantages and disadvantages of the different coordination models are discussed. In particular, two composite indices are employed: (i) an index of the intensity of coordination at the regional level; (ii) an index of effectiveness of IT policies, measured as the level of advancement of municipalities in the use of ICTs. The two indices are then compared with the coordination models adopted. Preliminary results show a positive correlation between the two indices, while the presence of an IT public company does not appear to significantly affect either the IT performance nor the level of coordination.

Here is an earlier (full) version of the paper (in Italian), presented at the XXXIII Annual Scientific Conference of the Italian Regional Science Association (AISRe), Rome, Italy.
Here is the final version published in Economia e Politica Industriale – Journal of Industrial and Business Economics.

 

IT companies owned by regional government in Italy (x = dimension; y= no. of activities / topic covered)

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Italian Regions (x = ICT policy coordination index; y = effectiveness of ICT policy index; “No IH” = Regions not owing any IT company; clusters = see previous graph)

fig 3 colori

 

 

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09/02/14 Research

Do EU regional digital strategies need more balance?

Here is the abstract of my paper “Are EU regional digital strategies evidence-based? An analysis of the allocation of 2007–13 Structural Funds” with Sergio Scicchitano, which was published yesterday in Telecommunications Policy.

The ambitious goals of the European “Digital Agenda” need active involvement by regional innovation systems. Effective regional “digital strategies” should be both consistent with the European framework and based on available evidence on the needs and opportunities of local contexts. Such evidence should be used to balance the different components of the Information Society development (e.g. eServices vs. infrastructures; ICT supply and demand), so as to ensure that they can all unleash their full potential. Therefore, EU regions should spend more money to overcome regional weaknesses than to improve existing assets. In this paper we explore the different strategies of the EU's lagging regions through the analysis of the allocation of 2007–13 Structural Funds. Then, we verify whether such strategies respond to territorial conditions by comparing strategic choices made with the actual characteristics of local contexts. Results show that EU regions tend to invest more resources in those aspects in which they already demonstrate good relative performances. Possible causes of this unbalanced strategic approach are discussed, including the lack of sound analysis of the regional context and the path dependence of policy choices.

You can download an earlier (full) version of the paper, presented at the Regional Innovation and Competitiveness Policy Workshop, UK-Innovation Research Centre – University of Cambridge in 2012.

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04/04/13 Research

Open Data strategies are finally converging – EU regions and the data on cohesion policy

EU Regions and national agencies managing EU Structural Funds are forced by a common Regulation to publish at least a minimum set of information on the projects and recipients that are funded with public money. This data is crucial to fight corruption and, more importantly, understand how the money is being used and what kind of results the policy has achieved.

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While some Regions haven’t released much more information than the name of the beneficiary and the total value of the project, more and more public authorities in Europe are taking current regulations as an opportunity to manage EU funds more transparently.
Two years ago I blogged about three different open data strategies that public authorities were pursuing back in 2010.

  1. The first implied the release of high-quality data in machine-readable format
  2. The second was focused on data visualization and interactive search in order to include non-technically oriented citizens in open data re-use and understanding
  3. The third was about NOT being open. Little detail, little quality, lots of PDFs.

New data collected in October 2012 on the availability and quality of open data on EU Cohesion Policy tell quite a different story. From October 2010 to October 2012 the strategies have evolved, leaving room for more speculation about what kind of supply of policy data we can expect for the future. More precisely, data suggests that the two proactive strategies have become one.

According to a nonlinear multivariate analysis of 8 indicators on the openness and transparency of 434 Operational Programmes in Europe, it is not easy to clearly distinguish a strategy based on re-usable formats and detailed information from a strategy focused on letting users browse through data and diagrams.

For example, in 2010 a machine-readable format was associated with highly detailed financial data on project implementation or with proper metadata and projects’ description, while the presence of a map or of advanced search capabilities was likely where data were presented directly in a HTML page. Now the two formats are highly correlated. This implies that some national or regional portals – just like Italy’s national portal OpenCoesione – now let the users both download the data in bulk and surf through the data right on the website.

Obviously, this is good news for researchers, data journalists and ordinary citizens. Data providers seem to be more aware that the usefulness and stewardship principles are complementary. Most public agencies, though, keep following the same strategy of NOT being open and offer data in PDF with little information.
The variables showed in the two graphs below relate to:
• the format (PDF, XLS or CSV, HTML)
• the way the data is presented (GEO = maps & graphs; RIC = search functions)
• the datail of the content (CONT) and the financial data in particular (FIN). The variable QUAL represents data quality features such as the presence of metadata, english version of the fields, update frequency.

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25/07/12 Open Policy

‘OpenCoesione’ – here it comes the Wiki-Regional Policy

‘OpenCoesione’ – here it comes the Wiki-Regional Policy

Last week Italy witnessed a massive release of open data as the national government launched ‘OpenCoesione’, or ‘Open Cohesion’, an initiative that has gathered data on more than 450,000 development projects mainly funded by EU Regional Policy and managed by more than 50 different national and regional (sub-national) institutions. The projects are worth € 33.4 billion in resources for development and, in the lagging regions, they represent the main source of new investment in times of financial downturn. 
Now they are open to public scrutiny: information on costs, payments, private co-funding, schedules, names of the public and private institutions involved, locations, etc. are available on the web in order to enhance the debate on the destination and use of the funding.

Italy’s Minister for Territorial Cohesion and renowned EU Policy expert Fabrizio Barca believes that the lack of transparency on how public money is spent is one of the main reasons for the slow pace characterizing current Structural Fund absorption in Italy. This initiative is therefore unprecedented, especially if the context of Southern Italy is taken into consideration. Southern Italy is where most of the financial resources for development converge and it is often depicted as highly corrupted and (long before the crisis) economically paralyzed. After decades of subsidies, the extent to which European Regional Policy and its Structural Funds are actually effective remains controversial.
droppedImage_1So the main purpose of OpenCoesione is to disinfect EU and Italian cohesion policies with the aid of a little sunshine. And while doing so, to improve policy effectiveness through extended public participation and collaboration.


 

Stewardship vs. usefulness: a balanced approach

From the very beginning, OpenCoesione initiative struggled to cover the different needs of its potential users by diversifying the offer. This is to find the right balance between the two principles of stewardship (data quality, accuracy, etc.) and usefulness (providing easy-to-use tools to access the data).

Two main components of this initiative are now on the web [in Italian only, at least for now]:

  1. An Open Data section on the website of the Department for Cohesion, with a set of fully-detailed data on the projects funded by EU Regional Policy during the 2007-13 programming period. Data is published in CSV format under Creative Commons BY-SA license. The new website also includes additional data and two data visualizations [in English] on Italian regional budgets and other economic figures at sub-national level. There is also a page with any existing analysis and insight based on the data, to be expanded in the future as the data – hopefully – is going to be used for research purposes. A similar section is available on the website of the Inter-ministerial Committee for Economic Planning including open data on the development policies funded by the national accounts. 
This big open data repository is aimed at offering high-quality, easy-to-access data to anyone interested and so improving citizens’ trust in government as a good steward of their information.
  2. A new, open source website OpenCoesione.gov.it. The user can surf through geo-referenced images, project fiches, statistics and dynamic graphs. The Italian open data community immediately welcomed the portal highlighting its weaknesses, while the press, with a few exceptions, did not cover the news.
The portal is an effort to include non-technically oriented citizens and to provide a first, ‘official’ interpretation of the data. Obviously, anyone can use the open data to re-interpret the official message and come up with her own relevant analysis and ‘storytelling’. Though, a first-hand interpretation can help the citizen understand the original purpose of the policy maker, and so get an inside view of objectives, rationales and policy design. Now, basically, this is limited to providing (a) information on the policy, (b) contextual data (economic data or “output” data at the regional level, such as unemployment figures or the percentage of households with a broadband connection) and (c) a dual classification system composed of 13 themes (energy, education, research, etc.) and 6 types of intervention (grants, infrastructures, financial engineering instruments, etc.).

Data quality first

In his first speech to the Parliament on December 2011 [here in the ‘commentable’ version provided by CommentMario.it], Minister Barca described the data that his own Department has been managing for years as “extraordinary” in terms of its potential impact on public discourse. He called himself “lucky enough, since the data is ready and only needs to be opened up”. Correct, the data is indeed extraordinary given its high level of detail but, at that time, it was not ready at all.

As a policy analyst at the Department for Cohesion, I have been working with this kind of data for 5 years now. The national repository on EU Regional Policy is the main source of information for the insights and internal reports I make for my Director General. For this reason I have been involved in a process aimed at uncovering, cleaning up and making sense of a large amount of data including variables that were left unused – and so unknown. For example, I soon realized that in my work I was using only a small part of this huge dataset. While I was focusing mainly on the financial aspects of the projects’ implementation, the dataset contained all kinds of information about the project lifecycle. 
From January on, I can estimate that this process of cleaning up and consolidating the data involved 2-3 people full-time, all members of an internal working group led by Simona De Luca and Carlo Amati. Actually, many more people have been involved in the group but not on a full-time basis, which is not an ideal situation from an organizational perspective. The group combines different professional specializations (public policy, statistics, IT, law, etc.).

Two key issues soon emerged:

  • The dataset is a kind of “secondary source”. It collates data from at least 30 different information systems, which are used by the regional or national institutions for managing the funds and keeping track of the progress made by the projects, into one national repository. Even though metadata is the same, different interpretations of the same variable may occur, resulting in non-consistent or even conflicting information. This can be considered a sort of a side effect of multi-level governance, which characterizes EU Regional Policy (see for example Panorama magazine’s last issue on partnerships edited by the European Commission). 
In some cases, inconsistencies and conflicts are still to be solved through accurate analysis involving interviews with regional authorities. These variables are therefore “frozen” for future publication.
  • Some of the data contains personal identifiers, i.e. names and surnames included in the title of the project. It has been decided to intervene to protect the identity of the people involved with special attention to socially disadvantaged categories. So the projects aimed, for example, at promoting social inclusion or combating discrimination have been anonymized before being published. The projects that have been anonymized are the 10% of the total, and the 3% in terms of value.

The rise of the Wiki-Regional Policy: from transparency to control to crowdsourcing

Opening the “black box” of Structural Funds is for sure a big step towards greater transparency. Efficiency and effectiveness of regional policy would benefit greatly from improved transparency regarding how, where and when public money is spent. However, in order to have real impact it is essential to enable bi-directional flows of information between government and civil society by promoting participation and collaboration from all kinds of stakeholders.
The citizen and civil society in general can act as a powerful source both in terms of control of the spending and suggestions for further improvements in policy design and implementation. In particular, public, dispersed control should focus on the results of the policy by comparing targeted and achieved outputs with final outcomes, as represented in the figure above. This is expected to influence the decisions of policy makers with a positive effect on levels of fund absorption, the quality of public investments and citizens’ participation in public choices.

Firstly, OpenCoesione needs the citizens because the description of the projects is sometimes incomplete or not fully comprehensible. As highlighted by the Italian blogger Guido Scorza, current descriptions lack key information of projects’ rationales, objectives and genesis. Also, it is difficult to understand the broader policy objective behind it or what strategy was followed by the regional authority to justify this action. Information on regional strategies and objectives, as well as on the types of interventions involving one or more specific projects, is already in possess of the administrations. Here a more efficient coordination and better integration between the national and the regional information systems is needed.

However, detailed information about each project is sometimes simply not available. So, on the OpenCoesione portal, each of the 450,000 pages describing the projects includes a form that can be used to provide additional information about the project itself. A mechanism similar to that of Wikipedia. As Beth Noveck points out in her book Wiki Government, “when a policy problem is divided into smaller parts, so that it can be distributed and worked on by collaborative teams, the drive toward openness and innovation begin”.

Secondly, the citizen can provide feedback on project implementation, as well as information on perceived results. Examples of the questions included in the form are: “What did the project achieve?”, “What are the main results?”, “What is the impact on your city or region?”, “How can the project be improved?”. Within each thematic area of the website (research, energy, etc.), information on the projects funded can be compared with relevant statistics at the regional level, in order to highlight current levels of performance and related trends.

All the information gathered from the users (common citizens living nearby, experts, project managers, civil servants or researchers, etc.) on the projects’ achievements is going to be used to enrich current datasets, even if it is too early to determine exactly what this integration will look like. The intention here is to transfer the feedback on both data quality and the project results from central government to the responsible regional institutions in order to enable quick action. A permanent “technical group” has also been established with representatives of both national and regional institutions to strengthen the links between the two tiers of government and exchange additional information about the projects. For example, the Ministry of Research is ready to offer its data on research and innovation projects already published as open data on the website of the Programme “Research and Competitiveness”.


Built to last? The efforts of a government of technocrats

Such a big effort challenges well-established tacit norms and procedures in the management of development policies. In Italy, these “tacit norms” date back to the 50’s (see the beginning of cohesion policy in Italy) and often consider the EU requirement for transparency a question of mere formal compliance. OpenCoesione anticipates the future rules of 2014-2020 EU programming period and goes even further to encourage feedback and collaboration form all stakeholders. This is even more surprising considering that national policies, traditionally far less transparent than EU policies, are also being opened as part of the same operation. So, why now?
The Italian open data movement is quite proud of its bottom-up approach, a peculiar way to “innovate without permission”. However, in this case, it would have been impossible to open up such a huge dataset without the right, top-down push. If your data is stored in a vault, there is no way to get it back.

According to Simona De Luca, “in a time of severe economic austerity, Italy’s ‘technical government’ has increased [rather than reduced] emphasis on the publication of open data as a means to help boost the economy and make government more efficient” (see her talk at “Using Open Data” W3C/Crossover workshop). Alberto Cottica, one of the chairs of the workshop, commented on Twitter “Transparency provides legitimacy, and a technocratic government needs that a lot.”.
In any case, it is evident that this technocratic government is not going to last. In April 2013 (at the latest), elections will pave the way for a new, political government. This is why, in my opinion, such a government is less afraid of the consequences of exposing relevant data, which might be used to prove political failures.

At the presentation event for OpenCoesione Minister Barca invited all stakeholders to use and re-use the data. Only if this initiative manages to reach a ‘critical mass’ in terms of usage will it have the chance not to be shut down in 2013. Researchers, journalists, socio-economic partnerships and associations leaders, local public administrators, as well as government and opposition representatives are called for action. As always, big challenges lie ahead.

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26/04/12 Digital Government , Research #

Why we need another composite index (on public e-Services)

The debate on composite indicators or synthetic indices in the e-government field has been ongoing since the publication of the first benchmarking exercises at the EU level back in 2002. Many analysts and researchers consider composite indicators as “black boxes” (see for example this paper by Frank Bannister, 2007). We put in still intelligible indicators and what comes out is a mysterious number, and, inevitably, a mysterious rank. The feeling is that it’s a weird combination of voodoo (or too complicated math), subjectivity, weak frameworks, unbelievable results (can you really believe that Italy has put 100% of public services on line with the highest possible level of interactivity?).

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A 3-days seminar at the JRC-IPSC of the European Commission opened my mind. There I found a motivated and high-skilled team coordinated by Andrea Saltelli, which, by the way, was responsible for drafting the OECD-EC Handbook on Constructing Composite Indicators.

While it was clear to me that things like data quality, framework reliability and transparency – when it comes to show how the results have been computed – are always crucial, I learned that composite indicators quality and robustness can and must be checked, and that more advanced and reliable techniques can be applied. I suspect that if we applied tools such as the Sensitivity Analysis or the Uncertainty Analysis to the existing “black box” indicators we would get an idea of how ranks can vary and of therefore at what extent resulting policy indications can be week.

I’ve been working for quite some time on a composite indicator on eServices (eGovernment, eEducation, eTransportation, to be extended to eHealth and Smart Cities) for research project TAIPS funded by the European Investment Bank, together with my friends and colleagues Marco Biagetti, Davide Arduini and Professor Antonello Zanfei. I presented some preliminary results at the 1st EIBURS-TAIPS Conference at Urbino University (here you can find all papers and slides from the conference), in front of a bunch of innovation policy gurus including Paul David, Ian Miles, Edward Steinmueller and Keith Smith.
Here is the abstract and my slides.

Abstract The study aims at providing evidence on regional differences in the diffusion of ICT in the public sector in Italy, with a focus on different types of public e-services (eGovernment, eEducation and Intelligent Transport Systems). Data are obtained by merging four different surveys carried out by Between Co. (2010-11) and Istat - Italy’s National Bureau of Statistics (2009). We pursue a three-fold objective. First, we attempt to overcome the prevailing attitude to consider the various domains of public e-service provision as separate from one another. In other words, measuring the progress of digital government requires a holistic view to capture the wide spectrum of public e-services in different domains (e.g. local and national administrative procedures, transportation, education, etc.) and the different aspects of service provision (not just e-readiness or web interactivity, but also multi-channel availability and take-up). Second, we shall tackle a major drawback of existing statistics and benchmarking studies of public e-services, which are largely based on the count of services provided online, by including more sophisticated indicators both on quality of services offered and back office changes. Third, we develop a sound, open and transparent methodology for constructing a public eServices composite indicator based on OECD/EC-JRC Handbook. This methodology, which incorporates experts opinion into a Data Envelopment Analysis, will allow us to combine data on different e-service categories and on different aspects of their development, and will enable us to define a ranking of Italian regions in terms of ICT adoption and public e-service development.
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31/10/11 Open Policy

The map of EU Structural Funds Transparency at regional level – October 2011

According to the current 2007-13 regulation, all regional and national agencies responsible for managing one of the 434 Operational Programmes funded by the 2007-13 Structural Funds must publish on the web a list of businesses or public authorities that have received public funding and the amount of funding received. But the way they do this varies greatly across Europe.

The second output of the evaluation activity of the availability and quality of open data on European Structural Funds is now being published. It’s a benchmarking report (in Italian only, at least for now) that I prepared with the help of my colleague Chiara Ricci for the DG Regional Policy of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development.
I had the chance to present it at the Annual Meeting between the European Commission and the Italian Managing Authorities of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), held on October 27-28, 2011 in Rome. It was an extraordinary opportunity to talk about the benefits of open government data in front of a number of high-level representatives of all regional and central institutions involved in the implementation of Regional Policy in Italy (here is my presentation).

The report features brand new data on detail, accessibility, formats, and other characteristics of the datasets on the recipients and the projects funded by European Regional Policy (“lists of beneficiaries”). It’s a new wave of data collected in October 2011, exactly one year after the first web-based survey. A total of 32 characteristics are taken into account in the evaluation process, including the presence of search masks and visualization systems.

The map of Structural Funds transparency reported below shows a core component of this research, that is the format of the data published by each region. The map shows the average score of all the regional and multi-regional programmes that have an impact of that specific territory. A very low score is attributed to PDFs and to HTML reports that split the data into multiple tables or pages (regions in red or orange) . Higher scores are assigned to the XLS format, which is machine-processable (in yellow). The highest scores are attributed to the few regions in Europe that publish data in an open format such as CSV (in green), since no data is currently published in XML or JSON or RDF (see the report for the details about the construction of the index). You can also find the link to the datasets by clicking on each region. The link to the Regional Programme is displayed where there is more than one dataset available.

One year after the first survey, the level of openness has not improved. About two-thirds of EU Operational Programmes still publish their data in PDF, while only 2% use open formats. A radical change is necessary to meet the requirements of new 2014-2020 regulation, as proposed a few weeks ago by the European Commission, which include the use of CSV or XML format.

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10/10/11 Innovation Policy

Ex-ante conditionalities for Regional Innovation Policies

As I reported last week, the European Commission has presented the proposals for the new 2014-2020 EU Regional Policy regulations, and the EU regions are currently discussing the future of the policy at the Open Days 2011. Although these drafts need to be definitively adopted by the end of 2012 by the Council and the European Parliament, this step is going to represent a milestone in a long process. On the one hand, it is the final product of a two-years-long discussion started in the high-level group reflecting on future Cohesion Policy, a support working group composed by representatives of the Commission and the Member States. On the other hand, it represents the beginning of the 2014-2020 programming phase.

A new principle is introduced. Regional Policy will not finance a Member State Programme until a set of ex-ante conditionalities, that is specific conditions and pre-requisites at the national level, are fulfilled. Ex-ante conditionalities were first envisioned by the European Commission in the framework of the debate on the reinforcement of economic governance [pdf]. Then they were reaffirmed in the Fifth Cohesion Report and further developed in a high level group document [pdf] proposed by the Commission in December 2010.

A list of the conditionalities proposed can be found in the general regulation. As for research and innovation (R&I), the conditionality is as follows: “the existence of a national and/or regional innovation strategy for smart specialisation in line with the National Reform Program, to leverage private R&I expenditure, which complies with the features of well-performing national or regional research and innovation systems”.

The focus of the conditionality is in fact only on the strategic level, that is on the existence of policy documents that, based on tools such as the technological forecasting, select a limited number of policy priorities and industry sectors to support. In particular, the proposal of the EU Commission states that Member States must:

  • define an innovation strategy for smart specialisation that is based on a SWOT analysis to concentrate resources on a limited set of R&I priorities, outlines measures to stimulate private RTD investment and contains a monitoring and review system.
  • adopt a framework outlining available budgetary resources for R&D;
  • adopt a multi-annual plan for budgeting and prioritization of investments linked to EU priorities (ESFRI).

The need for a strategic view of regional policies in general and of innovation policies in particular (see for example the much-needed smart specialization approach) is evident. But is such a strategy-focused approach enough to ensure a better policy and a better use of public money?

First, given the essential nature of R&I policy, the answer should be “no”. As stated in one the underlying papers of the Barca Report on the future of Cohesion Policy, “Putting money into a strategic R&D plan may not always lead to a new technology, or even less to the adoption of that technology”. In other words, identifying regional strengths and comparative advantages is correct, but will may not lead to the desired results.

Secondly, a strategic document that is compliant with the Commission’s requests is easy to be obtained for a regional government. For example, the regional strategy could be written by a consultancy and adopted without an active involvement of regional and local agencies, and, even worse, of stakeholders. I don’t mean that this is the usual way to define a regional strategy, but it happens.
Thirdly, a strategy defines policy objectives, priorities, targets, indicators, but does not describe exhaustively how these objectives are going to be reached. And we know that devil is in the details.
So this is why other kinds of ex-ante conditionalities should be taken into account, specifically those related to policy implementation. For example, one conditionality could focus on the specific content and characteristics of the criteria for projects selection included in the Operational Programmes. Since Operational Programmes are generally set up after the definition of the “contract” between the Member State and the European Union, this solution may be more difficult to implement – because Member States should first approve the Operational Programmes and the selection criteria and than wait for the EU money – but will ensure a tremendous improvement in the quality of selected interventions.

For example, a conditionality could be applied to the selection criteria by making sure they incorporate the results of ex-post evaluation of past interventions and learning from policy failures. The conditionality could also be leveraged to systematically introduce a multi-stage approach in funding projects. In this case, a project-level conditionality is applied both on final and intermediate results through in itinere and ex-post evaluations.

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06/10/11 Open Policy

Structural Funds 2014-2020 open up to open data

This is very good news for the open data movement. Earlier today Commissioners Hahn and Andor presented the European Commission proposals for the new Structural Funds regulations for the period 2014-2020. The new general regulation includes an article that force EU countries and regions to open up their data on projects and beneficiaries of Regional Policy. EU Regional Policy (or Cohesion Policy) is worth € 376 billion, more than a third of the entire budget of the Union.
In the last few months, technical and policy recommendations on how to improve the rules of this policy concerning transparency were provided by two studies (one commissioned by the European Parliament and the other by the DG Regional Policy [pdf]) and one independent web-based survey. Plus, organizations such as Transparency International advocated better rules and practices, such as the creation of a centralized website that contains all EU funds beneficiaries and that publishes the data respecting the 8 principles of Open Government Data.

The good news is that most of these recommendations have been incorporated in the drafts of the new regulations. In particular, Art. 105 (Chapter II, Information and Communication) states that EU countries “shall in order to ensure transparency in the support of the Funds maintain a list of operations by operational programme and by Fund in CSV or XML format which shall be accessible through the single website or the single website portal providing a list and summary of all operational programmes in that Member State”. It has been demostrated that the presence of a single website covering all data from the local institutions will likely improve the performance of the country in terms of transparency.

The minimum set of information to be provided – currently limited to three items – has been extended to cover new interesting data such as postcodes of beneficiaries. The data fields that must be included are listed in Annex V:

  • Beneficiary name (only legal entities; no natural persons shall be named);
  • Operation name;
  • Operation summary;
  • Operation start date;
  • Operation end date (expected date for physical completion or full implementation of the operation);
  • Total eligible expenditure allocated to the operation;
  • EU co-financing rate (as per priority axis);
  • Operation postcode;
  • Country;
  • Name of category of intervention for the operation;
  • Date of last update of the list of operations.
  • The headings of the data fields and the names of the operations shall be also provided in at least one other official language of the European Union.

In my opinion, this proposal is probably a good compromise between the need to introduce new, more transparent ways to publish data and the current level of technical and administrative capacity of EU regions. However, a few important features characterizing real open data are still missing. For example the data should be released in a linked-data formats such as the RDF. Plus, a clear indication of the license under which the data are released should be provided. Introducing these features now – even though the RDF format seems now pretty advanced – is particularly important seeing that it is rather difficult to modify a multi-annual regulation once it is approved.

Obviously it will be crucial to monitor the actual implementation of these rules across the European Union. Luckily, official regulations have demonstrated to be a powerful tool, far more persuasive than other initiatives, such as the European Transparency Initiative, undertaken by the Commission after the approval of the official regulations. As already demonstrated, the level of compliance with regulations among EU agencies is extremely high, given that the Commission has the power to stop the flow of money from the EU to the Regions if these rules are broken.

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