Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Transparency International (TI) recently launched its G20 Anti-Corruption Open Data Studies, which assesses how countries in that group are implementing the G20 anti-corruption open data principles. The main objectives of the study were to establish how much progress G20 governments have made in implementing open data as part of an anti-corruption regime; what are the main governmental policies and practices for open data and anti-corruption; and is there room for improvement in moving towards the principles?

South Africa, with Brazil, France, Germany and Indonesia, was one of five G20 countries singled out for a dedicated report. By focusing on five countries, TI aimed to show how different countries were faring, and to present selected examples of good practice in the use of open data to combat corruption.

Titled Open data and the fight against corruption in South Africa, the report assesses how South Africa is meeting its commitments to fighting corruption by applying and implementing the principles and actions set out in the G20 principles. In so doing it highlights a state of corruption and lack of accountability that spans the country’s public and private sectors.

Open data is defined as digital data that is made available with the technical and legal characteristics necessary for it to be freely used, re-used, and redistributed by anyone, anytime, anywhere.

It lies at the centre of world-wide transformation in communication and information sharing, fuelled by technology and possessing enormous potential to foster more transparent, accountable, efficient, responsive, and effective governments and civil society and private sector organizations, and to spur social and economic development.

G20 recommends using open data to fight corruption

In 2014, the G20’s anti-corruption working group (ACWG) established open data as one of the issues that merit particular attention in the promotion of public sector transparency. As a result, the ACWG developed the G20 open data principles, which represent the first step towards leveraging open data as a crucial tool in enabling a culture of transparency, accountability and access to information as efforts to prevent corruption.

The six principles have been developed considering international standards and good practices. They were adopted in 2015, and state that data should have the following characteristics:

  1. Open data by default (commits each G20 government to proactively disclose government data unless certain exceptions apply)
  2. Timely and comprehensive datasets (commits a government to identify and publish key high-quality and open datasets)
  3. Accessible and usable data and portals (commits G20 governments to increase data accessibility and usability by lowering unnecessary entry barriers, and by publishing data on single-window solutions, such as a central open data portal)
  4. Comparable and interoperable data (enabling the comparability of datasets and allowing for the traceability of data from numerous anti-corruption-related sources increases the possibility of detecting patterns, trends or anomalies that could be used to expose or counter corrupt practice)
  5. Data for improved governance and citizen engagement (open data empowers citizens and enables them to hold government institutions to account)
  6. Data for inclusive development and innovation (commits governments to support other G20 open data work and encourage civil society, the private sector and multilateral institutions to open up data)

“In terms of anti-corruption,
South Africa is commitment-rich but implementation-poor.”

“As is the case with international standards, what is crucial now is to ensure that these G20 principles do not solely remain lofty words on paper but are translated into national-level policy and practice across the G20 countries,” TI noted.

SA not a shining light in open data implementation

Based on the assessment of whether South Africa is meeting its commitments in the G20 data principles, the following are some general findings.

  • In terms of anti-corruption, South Africa is commitment-rich but implementation-poor.
  • Too few key anti-corruption datasets are available as open data.
  • The use of open data to make government transparent in efforts to combat corruption is not even across government departments: the National Treasury is setting the pace; others need to follow.
  • Of those anti-corruption datasets that are available, not one meets the requirement of being published under an open licence, using open standards or providing

Using a range of 10 commonly used datasets as indicators, including a beneficial ownership register, records of government spending and political financing, and directories of public officials, measured against nine criteria for each, the report revealed that South Africa scored a paltry 16 out of a possible 90, scoring zero in five indicators and between one and six for the other five. Its highest score was achieved in the government spending indicator, using information available from the National Treasury.

Despite statements such as that issued at the 2016 London anti-corruption summit, South Africa’s government cannot be seen as taking a unified stance on corruption, TI notes, because of the increasing division within the government. “At the core of the government divide are opposing stances on legitimate government spending.”

The country has taken a step or two towards the use of open data as an anti-corruption measure – such as the drafting of a revised and consolidated ICT policy to replace the existing, separate policies on telecoms, broadcasting and postal services, and which includes a commitment to developing an open government data action plan.

And in its third Open Government Partnership country plan, South Africa included three commitments that bring open data and anti-corruption together: open budgeting, a national open data portal, and beneficial ownership transparency.

Principles not being implemented

South Africa does not currently meet the requirement of having in place a policy supporting an ‘open data by default’ position in government. “There is a disjuncture between policy and practice, between high-level commitments and the implementation of open data initiatives at departmental or agency level,” TI notes. And while South Africa does have a Promotion of Access to Information act, there are challenges in using the law to access information that is in the public interest in that many public bodies seem to hamper access to information, either due to the failure of internal systems or as a result of the incompetence of the information officers to whom a request has been made.

In terms of principle two, South Africa does not publish anti-corruption datasets in a timely fashion, nor are they updated regularly. It also does not meet the requirement of allowing data users to provide feedback on the published data. However, South Africa does meet the requirement to make data available in granular form without data aggregation, and it partially meets the requirement of consistent information lifecycle management practices.

For the third principle, South Africa partially meets the requirement to make available data in a central open data catalogue, in the form of a beta version of its open data portal. However, the portal has not been updated for 16 months, and many links to the 409 datasets listed on the portal were broken. In addition, the country does not meet the requirements for the publication of open data by private companies.

In terms of comparable and interoperable data, the South African government does not implement open standards relating to data formats, interoperability, structure and/or common identifiers when collecting and publishing data. It also does not publish metadata describing the anti-corruption-related data sets.

In relation to the fifth principle, there is no evidence of the South African government using digital participation platforms to engage with relevant organisations working on anti-corruption in the country. There is also no evidence of the government providing tools, success stories and/or guidelines designed to ensure that government officials are capable of using open data as a means to prevent corruption. There is some evidence that the South African government is beginning to support a culture of innovation with open data through competitions or grants.

Finally, in terms of the sixth principle, the South African government only partially meets its obligation to promote the adoption of open data in other principles and activities supported by the G20’s ACWG. Furthermore, there is no evidence of the South African government encouraging citizens, civil society, private sector organisations or multilateral institutions to open up their data. And there is very limited evidence of the government creating or exploring partnerships with stakeholders working in the anti-corruption sector to support the release and use of key open datasets.