The turnout in the Dutch local council elections has achieved a new record low. Now local political parties are negotiating their next term. It is important that transparency and open data become an important part of these negotiations.
Dutch voters who went to the polls on March 19 had a dilemma when arriving at the polling station. Would they depend their choice for municipal candidates on a national TV debat between national party leaders? Would they depend their choice on filling in electionchoice apps that depend on political promises without financial coverage? Or perhaps did they want their choice depend on what municipal councilmembers actually have done the past four years?
More tasks to the municipalities need more openness
Decentralization, the transfer of heavy responsibilities from the national government to municipalities is steadily underway. These new responsibilities include decisions on public services but while councilors have a heavy responsibility, they also need to control and be held accountable.
This calls for the need of more government transparency. Local governments need to be committed to being open and transparent about how they work, their decision-making processes and the services they provide. As part of this commitment they need the amount of information and data that they make available publicly so that residents are able to hold us to account better.
The public should be able to hold local councils to account about the services they provide. To do this, people need information about what decisions local councils are taking, and how local councils are spending public money.
Public and semi-public institutions are afraid of a blame culture but how are the services they provide and the decisions they take become better when people do not even know what these institutions do? If a student shares his thesis with one or more fellow students before submitting, he will not initially pleased by the red track changes. However, he will shortly after discover that his work has improved by sharing it. Transparency also works this way. It is not a goal in itself but enables better public administration and effective public services.
Open democratic basic information
Municipalities and local governments need to publish democratic basis information as open data. They need to publish their decisions, minutes, voting records, quarterly and annual spending information as open data. Previous research by Open State showed that voting records of local councilors on many websites of Dutch municipalities are hard to find. In one out of four municipal council websites, voting records can not be found in online council information.
Companies that deliver council minutes for municipal-websites have not been obliged by local governments to deliver that information as open data. Although local governments are the owners of this data they are unaware that they could demand their suppliers to do this. This information needs to be published in an open format in a neutral way.
Local governments hold a wealth of financial information contained in financial records. Budgets, annual reports, income and expenses allow governments to guide policies and hold them to account. Providing digital insights of these financial data offers possibilities to check and control governmental expenses. It offers citizens the possibility to track cost reductions and propose alternatives.
In the Netherlands municipalities provide quarterly reports to the Central Bureau of Statistics (IV3-format). By unlocking this information as open data, it becomes possible to compare the expenditures of various local governments. With openspending.nl financial spending data of other local governments, municipalities and provinces can be included. With this, the unlocking of spending data becomes directly valuable to governments and citizens alike.