What is the Cost of Open Government?

On November 14, we convened Hub members and friends to discuss the recent report by Results for Development, Priceless? A New Way to Estimate the Cost of Opening Government. The presentation and rich discussion reflected on the state of the open government. It captured some of the key fault lines of debate about the accomplishments and needs of this still relatively nascent field.

You can read the report here and watch the full event here.

Moderator Nathaniel Heller began by noting that normative or intrinsic arguments (“open government is the right thing to do”) have advanced this work thus far, but we may be reaching their limits and benefit from having more instrumental arguments that help justify open government reforms (“open government is the cost-effective or efficient thing to do”). In this context, Results for Development introduced their Priceless Report (developed in collaboration with the World Bank’s Open Government Group and Governance Global Practice) - the first-ever attempt to quantify the full costs of open government reforms.

Report authors Praneetha Vissapragada and Naomi Joswiak walked the audience through their six-step costing process, including defining the scope and type of costs to consider, collecting and analyzing the relevant data, and more. The methodology used in the report was modeled after costing approaches in fields like education, health and nutrition where conducting costings estimates has a longer history. The authors attempted to adapt these to be appropriate to the governance sector.

The presenters clarified that their work offers cost estimates for two particular open government programs (an open contracting portal and an open data program) at one particular point in time. So their results should not be taken as the universal costs of open government efforts, but rather as points of reference and ways to begin the conversation. One notable feature of their work was their attempt to capture the hidden costs behind such programs, including things like volunteer labor. In costing out the programs, the researchers also considered contributions from a variety of actors, across government, civil society, the private sector, and external development partners (and staff salary was the most consistent cost category across the board).

They encouraged others to use their Excel-based costing tool and apply it to their own work. This both helps ease the process of determining the cost of other open government programs, and contributes to building the evidence base for the field. They explained that some of their costing efforts were difficult to do retrospectively, and encouraged participants to build in costing processes into future open government programs to be done as they are implemented rather than after the fact.

Heller mentioned the benefit of enabling reformers within governments by ‘arming’ them with cost-based arguments. For example, R4D determined the cost of the ProZorro open contracting platform in Ukraine to be about $5 million, while the estimated savings its generated is roughly $1 billion.

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Next, discussant Alan Hudson (Executive Director of Global Integrity) offered his overarching reaction to the report, making the case that the costing methodology developed pays insufficient attention to the essential characteristic of governance reform - that it’s a political process that plays out differently, and whose costs and benefits will vary, across different political contexts (see blogpost here and Alan’s prep for the event here). He cautioned against enthusiasm to “make the case” for open government reform, arguing instead for a more open approach to exploring the costs, benefits, value, and limits, of open governance reform. In his words, “opening government should be seen as a political process to be navigated, rather than a product to be supplied.

Next, Jean-Louis Sarbib (CEO of Development Gateway) asked how much of the methodology in the report is actually new, or just an example of the well-established field of project evaluation/appraisal now being applied to open government programs. He encouraged the authors and attendees to tap into the rich existing literature on project appraisal methodology that he worked with for decades at the World Bank to avoid reinventing the wheel.

An open discussion then ensued, where several participants reflected on the pros and cons framing open government reforms as technocratic vs. political processes. Some felt that it can be helpful to frame open government as neutral/technocratic, almost as a trojan horse, to secure the political buy-in needed to implement them (as is the case with some beneficial ownership reforms). Participants flagged areas for future research like:

  • quantifying the benefits (not just costs) of these programs;

  • more closely examining the costs specifically for external partners who are often advocating that governments adopt these reforms; 

  • assessing opengov benefits/impact by asking end beneficiaries what they perceive to be impact

  • using cost and benefit insights to help support the sustainability of opengov programs, including help governments determine what government unit(s) should own and sustain initiatives (there is some confusion about this now with the Sierra Leone open data program example)

Participants and speakers did not reach a consensus on whether the technocratic or political dimensions of open government should be more or less emphasized in different contexts. Yet the report catalyzed a healthy reflection on these and other integral challenges and opportunities to the open government field moving forward.

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