Georgia Activists Close Ranks Online to Open Government Data
Originally posted on Open Society Foundations: Voices.
The nation of Georgia has steered continually toward more open government since its 2012 elections, but local NGOs remain ahead of leaders in promoting reform.
The country reached a watershed this fall, when the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) appointed Georgia to its steering committeee and approved Georgia’s second OGP action plan. The government set new goals for itself in transparency of political contributions and surveillance activities, and extended prior plans for online data publishing and citizen-friendly web tools.
Four Georgian groups also achieved an advocacy milestone this year by unifying their demands for Freedom of Information (FOI). Together, they created the web site OpenData.ge. The story of the site’s evolution offers valuable lessons about the role of technology in NGO strategy and the challenges of capacity development for donors and other experts.
The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) posted the first version of the site in 2010, to publicize its FOI requests and allow citizens and journalists to track the replies it got—or did not get—from the government.
At that time, “public discourse was fully monopolized by the ruling political power,” says Vako Natsvlishvili at the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which supported both the initial tool and the revision. “Political opposition in the country was not strong.”
The original system allowed IDFI and Transparency International Georgia to promote new scrutiny and new guidelines on the compensation of public officials, an issue that continues to drive local policy changes. IDFI analyst Tako Iakobidze says the site not only helps drive reforms, but also serves a vital role by its existence, “so that broader society knows about the tool of public information.”
To widen the impact of their individual FOI requests, Transparency International Georgia and two other groups partnered with IDFI in 2012. They saw a chance for increased impact if they placed all their FOI documents in a single online location.
One of the partners, Green Alternative, proposed a model to build leverage for peer organizations. “We thought the information we have could have been used by others for their causes without wasting time and effort,” says Irakli Macharashvili, who leads Green Alternative’s biodiversity program.
Sulkhan Saladze is an attorney at the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, which partnered in creating the site. He says the tool offers a picture of not only the compliance but the “behavior” of government offices.
Saladze says the tool is also ideal for reporters. George Lomsadze, who writes regularly for EurasiaNet, agrees. He says mainstream reporting often merely “reflects” the statements of politicians or NGOs. “Projects like OpenData.ge provide public information in a digestible form,” Lomsadze says, adding wryly, “which we, the lazy journalists, very much appreciate.”
The site relaunched as a four-way collaboration in spring 2014. The Open Society Georgia Foundation and the Open Society Information Program funded the overhaul based on several assumptions. One was economy of scale, that groups on a single platform could have greater political impact. Another was that outside technology experts could provide the most suitable tools.
In practice, both suppositions have proven true, but the site’s creators and funders have also met with problems that are instructive for open government practitioners.
Tamar Kaldani works inside the government as Georgia’s first-ever Personal Data Protection Inspector and is also a former Open Society Georgia Foundation program officer who helped conceive the OpenData.ge collaboration. She says the launch of the site has spurred government discussion “on how to guarantee efficient free access to public information, transparency, and accountability.”
Indeed, policymakers have made several changes in recent years, including new FOI rules, new requirements for proactive information disclosure, and new web tools for transparency. But many changes remain delivered only in part. OGP’s Independent Review Mechanism says that the federal data disclosure site is so far a “compilation of links” to government data sources, not a source on its own.
And while IDFI and other groups continue to work closely with Georgian officials on transparency reforms, Iakobidze says the government’s rate of responses to FOI requests is actually falling. A comparison of responses between October 2013 and March 2014 revealed a 14 percent drop in full replies, as well as a 5 percent increase in requests that were ignored altogether.
Even though NGOs and international donors are growing more comfortable adding digital tools to core programming (as reports by Open Society and others show), technology projects often face the same challenges as other growth efforts.
Elizabeth Eagen of the Information Program says the need to balance local support with foreign expertise is a common problem that affected the Georgia project. “Without steady local coordination,” she says, “it was harder to keep all the groups mobilized. We think we can find better ways to compensate for the known challenges of introducing new technology to advocacy groups.”
The Huridocs technology team—based in Geneva and relying on project managers who were also outside Georgia—faced dilemmas beyond the usual challenges of digital capacity development.
Huridocs used their powerful Casebox system as the core of the site, but customizations took longer than expected. Daniel D’Esposito, who leads Huridocs, says the combined challenges of technology, distance, and coordinating multiple partners took a toll on efficiency. “We can travel and spur things and talk and make recommendations,” he says, “but we can’t tell people what to do.”
To help the Georgia partners coordinate, Natsvlishvili of the Open Society Georgia Foundation eventually presented them with a memorandum “which would regulate their relationships, rights and obligations, and decision-making process.”
Iakobidze says the growing teamwork has been vital to the site’s success. “Such a project requires quite serious commitment from all participant NGOs,” she says, “not only at the starting point but most importantly after the launch.”
“They have developed a feeling of ownership,” says Natsvlishvili. “Gradually, the site is turning into a platform for freedom of information.”