Barriers to implementation of open data strategies in small, medium, and large municipalities in British Columbia




Toogood, Shannon

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This thesis aims to provide a current understanding of the open data movement at the municipal government level in British Columbia. The focus of the analysis is to identify barriers municipal public servants have encountered and may encounter in adopting, implementing, and expanding open data programs. As defined by the Government of Canada, open data is “structured data that is machine-readable, freely shared, used and built on without restrictions” (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2019). In terms of the rationale for open data, Jaegar & Bertot (2010) note that open data initiatives act as a means of increasing transparency, accountability, and civic participation by governments seeking greater openness. Prior to the open data movement, some Canadian government data and information could only be accessed through a Freedom of Information request (FOI) or if not a sensitive document, through a library or public service centre. Often, FOI requests could take weeks to be filled and could be costly depending on the government policy being accessed. The documents available at libraries and public service centres were often ad hoc and had limited availability. The transition to an open regime in the early 2000s reflected a shift from an inherently confrontational method (citizen requesting information from the government) to governments proactively publishing data to encourage government and public collaboration and cooperation (Davies et al., p.1, (2019). As a result of the progressive open data movement in the early 2000s, data about policy-making, software code (open sources), documents, minutes, and financial data have been made publicly available resulting in a large repository of government data that can be found on numerous open data portals and government websites around the world (Charalabidis et al, 2018, p.6). Davies et al. (2019) noted that as open data grew organically, it spread across some networks, communities, and governments as approaches to open data became more diverse, fluid, and cross-sectoral (p.1). While open data has been continuously growing, evolving, and gaining momentum since the 2000s, it has not experienced linear progression at all levels of government. Davies et al. (2019) noted that the adoption of open data as part of the global development toolbox has opened it to substantial scrutiny that has tended to result in a re-evaluation of the effectiveness of open data rather than celebrating its progress. Additionally, many important datasets from local governments are still absent, resulting in many municipal public servants relying on outdated data and antiquated data systems for planning and decision-making (Maaroof, 2015). Consequently, the purpose of this research is twofold. The first objective of the research was to better understand the current state of open data in British Columbia (BC) municipalities and secondly, to identify the barriers municipal public servants face to adopting, implementing, and expanding open data programs. Based on the research and the literature review, this thesis presents recommendations for smart practices for adopting, implementing, and expanding open data policies and practices in BC municipalities. Methodology and Methods The research for this thesis was conducted as a comparative case study to examine open data initiatives in both municipalities with an open data program and those without in BC. Surveys and interviews with senior public servants working in BC municipal governments provided the foundation for data collection and analysis. A current state analysis of open data in municipalities in BC was completed, with 100 municipalities randomly selected to receive the survey. Of the 100 public servants in municipalities across BC that were contacted, 23 people completed the survey. Of the 23 people that completed the survey, 16 opted in for the interview for further discussion and 10 people completed the interview composed of 6-8 semi-structured questions. Both the survey and the interviews were conducted within a time-frame of two months during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, all findings were accumulated utilizing remote-communication methods (i.e., Zoom video conferencing for the interviews, survey-monkey for the surveys and e- mail for distributing information to participants). Key Findings The literature review revealed seven potential barriers to the adoption, implementation, and expansion of open data. The barriers are as follows, in no particular order: - Public servant education and skill sets are low in the area open data and knowledge about open data - Public servants appear to fear the perceived risks of open data - Political figures appear to fear the perceived risks of open data - Internal resource constraints in the municipality limit opportunities to implement open data - Citizens do not have advanced enough digital literacy to engage with the published datasets - Absence of effective data infrastructure within the municipality - Lack of executive/management buy-in within the municipality Utilizing this understanding of barriers as a starting point, the survey and interviews further explored these barriers as well as identify further themes related to open date in municipalities in general. Through the primary research, while related to some of the literature review themes above, two new themes were discovered in the survey and interviews as participants frequently identified them as barriers to the adoption, implementation, and expansion open data. • Open data is not prioritized - Open data is not being prioritized in BC municipalities by staff or elected officials. • The absence of a staff champion is detrimental to the success of open data - Many municipalities face budget constraints and numerous competing priorities that make allocating funding for open data challenging. The findings indicate that even in municipalities with established open data programs, it is unlikely to find a staff champion. Instead, it is commonly one staff member working on open data off the side of their desk without giving it their full attention. The lack of willingness to devote a staff member to focus on open data may result from numerous factors, including resource capacity, the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of education from both municipal staff and mayors and councilors of what open data is and how it can benefit the overall operations of the municipality. Recommendations The following recommendations are based on the findings of the literature review, surveys, interviews, and further criteria that was taken into consideration was ease of implementation, resource capacity, and political acceptance. The first recommendation is for municipalities to consider and the following recommendations are for the consideration of the BC provincial government or the federal government. British Columbia Municipalities: Recommendation 1 – Establish an Open Data Staff Champion within the municipality public service and at the Council level if not already in place. Government of British Columbia and/or Government of Canada Recommendation 2 – Establish a financial support initiative at either the provincial or federal level to aid municipalities with the initial start-up costs of implementing an open data framework and system. Recommendation 3 – Create a partnership between the BC provincial government and the BC Economic Development Association to increase education resources on how open data benefits internal operations of municipalities. Recommendation 4 – Leverage the provincial Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) to create an ‘open data for local government’ working group



Open Data, Municipal Governance