In the past few weeks I have been very involved with transparency (and therefore, open data) together with the friends of Agorà Digitale. Right when we were all busy with the Settimana della Trasparenza (Transparency Week), verifying if and how much the expenditure data from local and central Italian government is open (the resulting data is here), the cabinet accelerated the passage of a decree reorganizing all norms concerning transparency (decreto unico di riordino delle norme in materia di trasparenza).
This new version of the decree is said to be explicitly aimed towards a simplification of the existing norms and an augmentation of citizen rights. However the result is a huge step backwards for transparency and open data. Let’s see why. First, there is no attempt at introducing a true Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)-like legislation. Second, open data is ditched with the abolition of article 18 of the D. L. n. 83/2012, the so called “Decreto Sviluppo”, that was the most revolutionary and effective way to pursue transparency for expenditure data.
But there is more bad news. The Italian Data Protection Authority, who advised on the proposed changes, asked for even more pejorative steps further away from open data, for example prohibiting indexing and spidering by web search engines, making a mockery of any claim of “transparency”.
The Cabinet has been in a hurry to approve this decree before the coming elections – in such a hurry that they have forgotten to be transparent in the process! There has been no consultation on any level, either with other administrative bodies or with citizens and organizations dealing with transparency. This is rather the opposite of open and collaborative government – and it gets worse. The final text was approved without even being on the cabinet agenda: paradoxically for a norm on “transparency”, citizens had no idea that the decree was going to be passed.
Italy has been a member of the Open Government Partnership for more than a year, even hosting an international meeting just two months ago. Yet it seems public consultation and transparency need not feature in the political life of an OGP country.
AgoràDigitale, FOIA.it and OpenMediaCoalition partnered to submit comments and six proposals on the proposed changes to the transparency norms. The proposals touch three main themes:
a) open data is key for transparency. All the documents whose publication is mandatory according to the decree must be open data published in open formats. Expenditure data must be available for web spiders and engines to index, because – as David Eaves put it – “if it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist”.
b) open budget & open spending: public spending data is the most-wanted category of data – as shown by the success of initiatives like “Era della Trasparenza” (the Transparency Age). Therefore it is necessary to make all budget and spending data open.
c) freedom of information act – citizen access: our proposal aims at obtaining a true and full freedom of information act, that is currently missing from Italian legislation and unfortunately not on the political agenda.
We launched a public campaign to support our proposals, even though no one asked for our comments. The reaction from citizens was encouraging, and confirmed that they want a government that is actually transparent. With the election last week leaving Italian politics gridlocked by a hung parliament, we hope that all parties can unite behind the centraility of open data and transparency for legitimate democractic government.
Stefano Costa is the coordinator of the Working Group on Open Data in Archaeology at the Open Knowledge Foundation.
When he's not busy with the OKFN, he's doing a PhD in Late Antique Archaeology at the University of Siena.