Tag Archives: David Eaves

What Canada can learn from Developing Countries on Public Financial Management sustainability, [Part 6]

Leverage “cognitive surplus” to improve public policy

Doug Hadden, VP Products

This is Part 6 of 6 parts detailing the content in my Financial Management Institute of Canada lunch presentation What can we learn about Sustainability from Developing Nation Governments?

Developing countries are adopting processes and technology designed to increase citizen trust while leveraging citizen and civil society cognitive surplus to improve public policy. If the Arab Spring, Tea Party and the Occupy movement has taught governments anything it’s crowdsource to improve public policy – or be crowdsourced.

Many define “democracy” as representative democracy rather than participatory democracy.  Indian MP Ruhal Gandhi suggested that the Anna Hazare hunger strike undermined democracy in India. Yet, it is clear that representative democracy is a thin form because citizens exercise the franchise only during elections.

Transparent and open government data enables developing nations to harness the power of citizens for audit. As I described recently in citizen audit use cases for Public Financial Management (PFM), there are compliance, fraud and performance citizen audit dimensions. Citizen audit is enabled through open data (proactive disclosure of public financial management information on the Internet) and social media collaboration (Internet enabled feedback and discussion.) I further suggested that it is the duty of citizens to leverage open government.

Auditing is expensive. Very expensive in developing countries. That’s why citizens, civil society and businesses are encouraged to help governments. For example, there is nothing better to uncover procurement fraud or poor procurement decisions than competitors.

We have world class external audit in Canada and improving internal audit, as I described in a previous post. David M. Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General has pointed out that the US Government Accountability Office has a proven return on investment though trapping fraud, improving controls, proposing performance improvements etc. Yet, even audit agencies with proven returns are being cut back.

The Performance Problem

As I’ve pointed out before, performance management in the public sector is more complex than in the private sector. Private sector organizations have a bottom line: profit. There are established measurements like market share, and return on assets. Output measurements like the number of customer complaints handled, and outcome measurements like customer satisfaction survey ratings are factors that influence financials – profitability. If all the KPIs are green and the company is not making a profit, than the indicators are likely incorrect.

There is no bottom line in government. Outputs and outcomes are the results. Financial – in this case, budgets, is the input. This makes it very difficult to determine whether the KPIs are correct. There could be false positives and false negatives.

Social media in government, or Government 2.0, can engage citizens and civil society to report on outputs or outcomes. For example, the Ushahidi platform is used to monitor elections, disaster response and corruption.

The next stage in citizen engagement is crowdsourcing through expert groups or the public. This shows promise when managed correctly. For example, an effort at the White House generated some unexpected ideas. The principle of using citizens to propose and vet solutions reduces the burden on governments and may generate ideas to solve important problems.

Participatory Budgeting to go virtual?

Participatory budgeting is a process originally developed in Brazil to engage citizens to improve budgets. Adoption of participatory budgeting has grown particularly at local government. My sense is that the immediacy of service delivery in local government can create a critical mass of participation. The use of neighbourhood and civil society meetings and government outreach may not be sustainable in large regional governments and many national governments.

My view is that participatory budgeting will become virtual in the future. We can learn from the lessons in participatory budgeting to improve outcomes.

There is some sensitivity in governments to crowdsource policy because policy is considered the purview of political wonks. There is a notion of budget confidentiality in Canada that may restrict the kind of openness enjoyed in developing countries.

Open Government Costs

Many argue that open government, social media, crowdsourcing etc. just costs money. I’ve summarized the business case for open government in a previous entry. A recent Transparency Camp Brainstorm identified the following benefit categories for open government:

  • Revenue, primarily in the form of increased tax collection through increased economic activity
  • Efficiency, effectiveness and productivity through reduced cost per unit of work including cost avoidance
  • Outcome improvements such as achieving higher levels of service delivery or improved health statistics

David Eaves argued that open data can reduce the cost for reduce the costs of Freedom of Information processing

Social Media effects

The resistance to social media and open data in developed nation governments contrasts to the attitudes from many developing countries. I find a greater acceptance of the value proposition of open government in countries like Timor-Leste, whose transparency portal is an amazing achievement, than in G8 countries.  The commitments for the Open Government Partnership show that these countries are innovating beyond expectations. This could result in a more engaged population with a deeper form of democracy than we enjoy in Canada today.

As I’ve written before, social media will be transformational for Public Financial Management. The key driver in developing countries is the need to sustain reform. This doesn’t mean sustaining the PFM “status quo”. Or, tweaking processes. This means continuous modernization and reform. Catching up to developed countries. Leapfrogging developed countries. This effort requires citizen engagement.

Let’s hope that governments at all levels in Canada do not hold back and get leapfrogged.

The Real ROI for Government Open Data

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Make sure you calculate the Return on Investment of open data projects. Experts warn us: the open data business case is often lacking. Traditional ROI calculations are too narrow.

Traditional ROI Calculation and “Government as Platform”

A traditional calculation compares open data costs and lost revenue from selling the data relative to additional tax revenue achieved. Tim O’Reilly  coined the notion of “government as platform” where open data (such as GPS) generates significant economic development. Some, like Andrea di Maio, disagree that governments should be acting as platforms.  Yet, this is what governments do: build economic platforms such as highways and bridges.

The problem with:

$TaxRevenue > $OpenDataCost + $DataSales

is that the government organization that provides data and benefits directly from selling the data to the private sector does not directly receive the additional taxes nor can these taxes be easily directly attributed to open data.

1. Economic Development and “Government as Platform”

Open data as policy can be compared to stimulus programs. Stimulus programs can improve employment and reduce bankruptcies. This reduces social services costs:

$TaxRevenue + $SocialServicesCostAvoidance > $OpenDataCost + $DataSales

2. Freedom of Information Costs

David Eaves has pointed out that open data can reduce the costs of Freedom of Information:

So in a world without an open data portal the hypothetical cost of fulfilling these “Canadian” downloads as formal access to information requests would have been $967,184.46 in January alone. Even if I’m off by 50%, then the cost – again, just for January – would still sit at $483,592.23. Assuming this is a safe monthly average, then over the course of a year the cost savings could be around $11,606,213.52 or $5,803,106.76 – depending on how conservative you’d want to be about the assumptions.

Open data portals can eliminate the need for many Freedom of Information requests – a high cost to governments.

$TaxRevenue + $SocialServicesCostAvoidance + $FOIAvoidance 
> $OpenDataCost + $DataSales

3. Productivity

Open data shines light on the public service. Although transparency does not necessarily mean accountability in the sense of enforcement, it has the power to change behaviour. Government organizations become aware that the public is watching. Civil service behaviour changes.

$TaxRevenue + $SocialServicesCostAvoidance + $FOIAvoidance + $ImprovedProductivity 
> $OpenDataCost + $DataSales

4. Corruption

Procurement expert Jorge Claro estimates that procurement corruption costs up to 20% for governments in developing nations. That’s why countries like Timor-Leste open budget and procurement data: to improve oversight by vendors and civil society to reduce corruption. (This also reduces the cost for auditors when the press is examining all large government purchases.)

$TaxRevenue + $SocialServicesCostAvoidance + $FOIAvoidance + $ImprovedProductivity + $ReducedCorruption

> $OpenDataCost + $DataSales

5. Trust

There remains a distrust of government in many countries. Not just in developing countries: distrust of government is a powerful narrative in American politics. The distrust in government can boil over to protest (Tea Party, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street etc.) This costs governments – although the release of data might give cause for protest in some cases!

$TaxRevenue + $SocialServicesCostAvoidance + $FOIAvoidance + $ImprovedProductivity + $ReducedCorruption +$ReducedProtests

> $OpenDataCost + $DataSales + $IncreasedProtests

6. Tax Compliance

Developed and developing nations alike struggle with tax avoidance. This is especially rampant when citizens believe that governments are wasting tax money. This is often made acute because of the lack of open data. There are frequent studies that show a significant delta between how governments spend and what citizens think governments are spending. In particular: foreign aid and crime. One can make the argument that Scandinavians are less concerned about high tax rates than Americans because they see value.

$TaxRevenue + $ReducedTaxAvoidance $SocialServicesCostAvoidance + $FOIAvoidance + $ImprovedProductivity + $ReducedCorruption +$ReducedProtests

> $OpenDataCost + $DataSales + $IncreasedProtests

7. Reduced Perceived Business and Donor Risk

Transparency is fundamental in many governance valuations used by the World Bank World Governance indicators (WGI) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Transparency indicators used to demonstrate reduced business risk and help generate donor funds in developing countries include Open Budget Index for open budgets and Revenue Watch Index for revenue transparency from extractive industries. International transparency standards include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) assessments are gaining widespread use by donors in making funding decisions. Transparency is a key element for 6 measurements in the PEFA Performance Measurement Framework:


B. KEY CROSS-CUTTING ISSUES: Comprehensiveness and Transparency
PI-5 Classification of the budget
PI-6 Comprehensiveness of information included in budget documentation
PI-7 Extent of unreported government operations
PI-8 Transparency of inter-governmental fiscal relations
PI-9 Oversight of aggregate fiscal risk from other public sector entities.
PI-10 Public access to key fiscal information

Transparency can reduce perceived business and donor investment risk in developing countries. This increases taxes, improves outcomes and ultimately improves credit ratings.


8. It’s a Network

ROI in the physical world is a diminishing returns calculation. Each new market for toothpaste increases costs. The virtual world is one of increasing returns. Each new chunk of open data adds value to previous chunks of open data. And the costs to collect and maintain open data goes down because the infrastructure scales. (That’s why Amazon can provide such value for the Elastic Cloud.)

∑($TaxRevenue + $ReducedTaxAvoidance $SocialServicesCostAvoidance + $FOIAvoidance + $ImprovedProductivity + $ReducedCorruption +$ReducedProtests)↑increasingreturns

> ($OpenDataCost + $DataSales + $IncreasedProtests)↓reducing costs


The ROI calculation is a bit mangled here. Yet, there is a compelling value proposition for government organizations to take the open data journey. The calculus depends on the country situation – in some cases open data can pay for itself thanks to reduced corruption or protest.