Opening data in an absolute monarchy: notes on Oman’s Open Government Data & Best Practices Symposium

No better example of the modishness of “open” can exist than holding an open government summit in an absolute monarchy. It would seem that such an event would indeed “open” itself to accusations of deliberately delicious irony, or deliberate contradiction. Yet such an event did indeed take place this past week, as Oman’s Information Technology Authority hosted an “Open Government Data & Best Practices Symposium.” A variety of experts and officials delivered presentations touting Oman’s progress in making government services available online, and in moving government datasets to an online data portal.

Let’s position this in perspective: Oman is a hereditary sultanate, ruled by the (relatively benign, and magnificently milliner-ed) Sultan Qaboos since 1970. The Sultanate only occasionally imprisons human rights activists and detains journalists and “citizen journalists.” On the other hand, the Sultan moved to invest the legislature with greater power in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, though the sluggishness of reforms has drawn further protests since then, and the government even goes so far as to make some spending and budgetary information available. So, it’s not… so bad – but it’s very far from ensuring robust citizen participation in a framework of universal human rights.

So what is open government data in an absolute monarchy for? Participants at the summit pointed up a few benefits. One is better service delivery as the kingdom’s administrators crunch data, perhaps including crowdsourced data, for better management. This is certainly something that even authoritarian rulers can worry about, and it’s concomitant with Sultan Qaboos’s reputation as a somewhat enlightened despot. Another is “green ICT,” which is a worthy goal I suppose. And the third is the use of public data to leverage business opportunities and spark entrepreneurship in the kingdom. This third use shows, I fear, that all good things don’t always go together and that, as I complained yesterday, open data for entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily guarantee that open data will be used for democratic accountability. In fact, as we see here, it can be used to bolster the capacity of an overtly authoritarian regime.

There’s also a less cynical way to look at this. That is by seeing Sultan Qaboos as a truly enlightened despot, a gradualist who wants to see his country “progress” economically, socially, and in a direction that lines up with more democratic governance. In this reading, citizens will be able to use some of the more substantial data sets on Oman’s open government portal (e.g., the lists of industrial tenants on government-leased lands) to at least hold enterprises to account. And there is in fact precedent for this sort of accountability, as Yeling Tan found in a study of environmental disclosure laws in China. If this is the case, then, while activists may not be able to call for the abdication of the monarchy, or even for an audit of the government’s reserve fund, they could call for disciplinary action against industrial polluters, or perform analysis on lease holdings to ferret out corrupt business deals. If Omani activists try to use the government’s data portal to identify corruption that touches individuals under the protection of the crown, though, things might get really interesting, and without a formal system of accountability in place, one might well doubt the future efficacy of this kind of activism. Information, delivered to the masses without protecting the write to organize and advocate around that information, does not automatically translate into power, or into social change.

At the end of the day, though, reforms have to start somewhere. That applies to open government as much as anything else, and there are worse places to start than with posting the texts of national laws online. The silver lining here is in the “best practices,” part of the symposium title: the people running the portal have pledged to adhere to these practices, including making datasets free to download, freely licensed, machine-readable, and disaggregated. All of these are good things. Let’s hope that this data perestroika will be the thin end of the wedge, eventually leading to an opening of government budgets, contracts, and military spending. But let’s also not pretend that there’s a straight line from disseminating enterprise data to democratic accountability, in Oman or anywhere else.

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