Improving Governance by Asking Questions that Matter

Fiona Cece, Nicola Nixon and Stefaan Verhulst at the Open Government Partnership:

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions” – Naguib Mahfouz

Data is at the heart of every dimension of the COVID-19 challenge. It’s been vital in the monitoring of daily rates, track and trace technologies, doctors appointments, and the vaccine roll-out. Yet our daily diet of brightly-coloured graphed global trends masks the maelstrom of inaccuracies, gaps and guesswork that underlies the ramshackle numbers on which they are so often based. Governments are unable to address their citizens’ needs in an informed way when the data itself is partial, incomplete or simply biased. And citizens’ in turn are unable to contribute to collective decision-making that impacts their lives when the channels for doing so in meaningful ways are largely non-existent. 

There is an irony here. We live in an era in which there are an unprecedented number of methods for collecting data. Even in the poorest countries with weak or largely non-existent government systems, anyone with a mobile phone or who accesses the internet is using and producing data. Yet a chasm exists between the potential of data to contribute to better governance and what it is actually collected and used for.

Even where data accuracy can be relied upon, the practice of effective, efficient and equitable data governance requires much more than its collection and dissemination.

And although governments will play a vital role, combatting the pandemic and its associated socio-economic challenges will require the combined efforts of non-government organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), citizens’ associations, healthcare companies and providers, universities, think tanks and so many others. Collaboration is key.

There is a need to collectively move beyond solution-driven thinking. One initiative working toward this end is The 100 Questions Initiative by The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. In partnership with the The Asia Foundation, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia, and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, the Initiative is launching a Governance domain. Collectively we will draw on the expertise of over 100 “bilinguals”– experts in both data science and governance — to identify the 10 most-pressing questions on a variety of issues that can be addressed using data and data science. The cohort for this domain is multi-sectoral and geographically varied, and will provide diverse input on these governance challenges. 

Once the questions have been identified and prioritized, and we have engaged with a broader public through a voting campaign, the ultimate goal is to establish one or more data collaboratives that can generate answers to the questions at hand. Data collaboratives are an emerging structure that allow pooling of data and expertise across sectors, often resulting in new insights and public sector innovations.  Data collaboratives are fundamentally about sharing and cross-sectoral engagement. They have been deployed across countries and sectoral contexts, and their relative success shows that in the twenty-first century no single actor can solve vexing public problems. The route to success lies through broad-based collaboration. 

Multi-sectoral and geographically diverse insight is needed to address the governance challenges we are living through, especially during the time of COVIDd-19. The pandemic has exposed weak governance practices globally, and collectively we need to craft a better response. As an open governance and data-for-development community, we have not yet leveraged the best insight available to inform an effective, evidence-based response to the pandemic. It is time we leverage more data and technology to enable citizen-centrism in our service delivery and decision-making processes, to contribute to overcoming the pandemic and to building our governance systems, institutions and structures back better. Together with over 130 ‘Bilinguals’ – experts in both governance and data – we have set about identifying the priority questions that data can answer to improve governance. Join us on this journey. Stay tuned for our public voting campaign in a couple of months’ time when we will crowdsource your views on which of the questions they pose really matter….(More)”.