Does Replacing Freedom of Information Request Handling With Open Data Based Self Service Reduce Operating Costs?

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    Dennis McDonald

    By Dennis D. McDonald

    Rebecca Williams’ Freedom of Information tools, it’s time for an open data inspired upgrade on the Sunlight Foundation’s blog is a great introduction to how the “open data” movement can interact with improvements in how “freedom of information” requests are handled by local governments.

    Williams illustrates how an analysis of an agency’s Freedom of Information requests can inform the prioritization of data when ramping up an open data program where there are more data sources than can be put online at one time.

    This makes sense. If people or organizations are repeatedly asking a government agency for the same type of data via cumbersome Freedom of Information requests, it’s logical to consider making such information easily available to download in order to avoid time-consuming and expensive manual request handling.

    The logic of this certainly appears sound but let’s examine this in more detail. This is how I responded when Alex Howard posted a link to Williams’ article on his Google+ Open Government community page:

    This article is a fantastic resource. I do want to believe the often repeated mantra that creating an open data program reduces the overall cost of handling Freedom of Information requests but would also enjoy seeing some data (including detailed process and system costs) demonstrating this.

    Shifting to self-service (which is what shifting to user-accessible data files from handling repetitive requests manually amounts to in some cases) is something that has been experienced by many corporations as request handling has been pushed to the web. Realities include (a) duplicative operations might still be needed to handle the complex difficult-to-automate requests and (b) government agencies don’t always have the freedom to reassign or fire redundant staff.

    Referenced by Williams in her article is the recent Reinvent Albany report that analyzes Freedom of Information inquiries as input to prioritizing which data to make open.

    The report points out the repeated requests generated by a relatively small number of commercial requestors. Clearly that is useful information that helps prioritize one’s open data program development efforts.

    At the same time let’s not forget members of the public who may not have the same skill or interest in demanding open data but who must rely on advocates or intermediaries to articulate their needs; these might not show up in data that reflect actual inquiries from more knowledgeable requestors.

    What I would really like to see are numbers on how making data “open” impacts the costs of providing citizen responsive services. In my own career I have seen examples where technology is introduced in support of improved customer service, first through introduction of enhanced problem-solving and decision-support tools to customer call centers, and also through the adaptation of social media and social networking to enhance customer support.

    In both cases technology significantly improved responsiveness to the needs of customers but actual cost savings were sometimes difficult to define. One reason for this was that adding another channel for responding to inquiries doesn’t completely remove the need to continue to maintain the fixed costs associated with the original response channels.

    Shifting more costs for customer support from employees to customers through enhancements to self-service methods is one strategy that has been adopted by organizations of all kinds. That’s one of the reasons that calling an 800 number for support often starts with a strong suggestion to go to the organization’s web site first.

    Of course, as an “open data” and transparency advocate I’m very much in support of making data about government operations more open and accessible; that’s one of the main reasons I’m working with BaleFire Global, an open data consultancy. But I’m reluctant to make a blanket “cost-reduction” a pitch for open data in the absence of seeing more data on this question.

    Related reading:

    Copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a project management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. He is currently working with BaleFire Global on open data programs and with Michael Kaplan PMP on SoftPMO project management services. His experience includes consulting company ownership and management, database publishing and data transformation, managing the integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, and IT cost analysis. His web site is located at and his email address is [email protected]. On Twitter he is @ddmcd.

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