International Relations/Political Science
21 September 2021

Open government data for improving accountability and public services

In his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science, Michael Jelenic explores how open government data can serve as a critical public policy tool to improve accountability relationships between citizens, politicians, and institutions as well as the delivery of public services, especially in developing country contexts.

Why did you choose to study open government data and its relationship with accountability and service delivery?

Several years ago, I helped to prepare a large project that supported the creation and release of open government data (OGD), that is, data produced by governments that can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose. The logic was that the expansion of OGD could make governments more transparent in their operations, thus providing an evidentiary basis for citizens and civil society to hold politicians to account for their performance, which could in turn lead to more effective and efficient government services, especially in critical social sectors such as education and health.

As nice as this narrative sounded at the time, there was a paucity of rigorous literature on the topic, which made it difficult to create an evidence-based theory of change that linked OGD with improved accountability and service delivery. Most evidence relied on “success stories” of OGD, which seemed to suggest that it could function as a panacea to confront a variety of issues, including economic and private sector growth, political participation, government accountability, anticorruption, internal government processes, as well as service delivery in the education and heath sectors, among others. However, the quality of these country examples was considerably varied, with little causal linkages or attribution between the OGD and its purported impacts. While there was also a significant body of more rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental literature in the social accountability field, few, if any, of these studies focused on the specific treatment effects of OGD initiatives themselves. In both cases, it was evident that there was little cross-country evidence on how OGD can affect accountability and service delivery – with examples often referring to a particular government, in a particular country, in a particular sector, at a particular moment in time, thus lacking external validity for application to other contexts.

So, in order to confront what some observers have deemed “faith-based” evangelism on the efficacy of OGD, the rationale for my research was to put in place a theoretical and empirical foundation for governance and development practitioners to more critically understand how and when OGD can indeed lead to improve accountability and service delivery – and, importantly, when it may not.  

Can you describe your research question and methodology?

My research question asked the following: “Based on the evidence available, to what extent and for what reasons is the use of open government data associated with higher levels of accountability and improved service delivery in developing countries?” 

To answer this question, I was able to construct a unique data set that operationalised OGD, government accountability, service delivery, as well as other intervening and control variables, and was able to establish a number of key associations. Based on initial clues from the statistical analysis, my research subsequently employed a qualitative approach that relies on comparative case study analysis as well as a novel political economy framework through which observers can better understand key enabling and disenabling factors of OGD initiatives in developing country contexts. 

What are your major findings?

In short: it depends – like most things in politics, economics, social science, and in life in general. 

Relying on data from 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the research finds a number of significant relationships between OGD, accountability, and service delivery. For instance: 

  • OGD and accountability are positively associated, which supports this widely asserted claim. Also independently significant are levels of public access to information and political agency, which implies that OGD is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improving accountability.
  • Accountability appears to be positively associated with service delivery in some cases; however, there are important differences across the education and health sectors and with respect to service provision and outcomes. 
  • Accountability does not appear to play a significant intermediating role in the relationship between OGD and service delivery in a universal sense, aside from the example of health outcomes, suggesting that more nuance is needed in these broadly asserted claims. 
  • Relatedly, OGD can likewise have a direct impact on service delivery regardless of levels of accountability, albeit with differences across the education and health sectors and with respect to service provision and outcomes.

What can explain these results? Drilling down deeper at a qualitative level, key enabling and disenabling factors can help to shed some light on what works. For instance: 

  • Institutional, stakeholder, and structural political economy drivers may explain why divergences can occur across sectors and with respect to service provision and outcomes.
  • Structural and global political economy drivers – while diverse and varied across countries – do not seem to have as much of a binding or determining effect on the future success of open data initiatives, which is somewhat unexpected, especially in developing countries. 

How do you see the future of open government data?

Headwinds have emerged that threaten to slow the OGD agenda, as well as the importance of transparency, openness, and accountably more generally. Recent episodes related to “involuntary disclosure” surrounding WikiLeaks, the Panama Papers, Cambridge Analytica, and others demonstrate considerable challenges with respect to transparency, openness, and privacy. At the same time, countries around the world are experiencing a shrinking civil space, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As tracked by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than 100 countries around the world have introduced emergency declarations in response to COVID-19, many of which have included measures that curtail freedom of expression, assembly, and personal privacy. This has been compounded by high levels of misinformation and disinformation across both traditional and social media platforms. 

Add in a fair dose of populism as well as the rise of “strong man” illiberal leaders across many countries, and it is not surprising that democracy appears to be in a state of “retreat.” Take for example Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index 2019, which recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, or The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index, which noted the worst average global score since the index was first produced in 2006.

In this context – for better or worse – it is necessary for practitioners to have a more critical look at the tools and methods we have for safeguarding transparency and accountability. More now than ever, an evidence-based view of tools such as OGD is needed – if for no other reason than to prove that we are just not putting too much faith into another “flash-in-the pan” solution to democratic woes.

What are you going to do now?

I have been working full-time in the field of international development as a public sector governance specialist throughout my PhD studies. Having to balance work travel to more than 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East over the years was certainly a challenge while trying to attend classes, collect data, perform regressions, and present at conferences. So, after nearly eight years of brutal multitasking, I look forward to continuing my professional activities, which is without a doubt my passion – but also to start enjoying my nights and weekends again, playing with my dog, and maybe even finding a hobby. 

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Michael Jelenic defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in March 2021. Professor Liliana Andonova presided over the committee, which included Professor Cédric Dupont, thesis supervisor, and Mr Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief Research of the Governance Laboratory, New York University, USA. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in his research are his alone and do not represent or otherwise reflect the views of any of the institutions he was or is currently affiliated with.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Jelenic, Michael. “From Theory to Practice: Open Government Data, Accountability, and Service Delivery.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.

Good to know: Members of the Graduate Institute can download the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository. 

Banner picture: excerpt from an image by S.Gvozd/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.