Asking the Right Questions: Aligning Political Incentives and Extractives Data

Beverley Hatcher-Mbu
October 29, 2021

In the era of big data, artificial intelligence, and digital innovation, it is a common theme that data is power. Nowhere has this conversation been more salient than in the extractive industries (EI), where making data more available has been a critical focus across global transparency initiatives over the last decade. If everyone is “on the same page,” about the importance of data availability then what’s the problem? How can we further these issues in the next decade of transparency and accountability work in resource rich countries? Part of the answers will lie in the issue of how power shapes data production and dissemination, specifically around accessibility and exhaustiveness.

Unmasking the Issues

Like most challenges, both digital and analog, solutions require nuance. There are two key issues that masquerade as data-specific, but in practice conceal a web of incentives and power structures that impede transparency: (1) access and (2) exhaustiveness.

With access to data, different custodial agencies, agencies who create or consolidate data, act as gatekeepers, determining how stakeholders both within and outside government receive critical data on the EI sector. Access ranges from an email or online form request to obtain a dataset, to more onerous (and expensive) on paper or in-person requirements. Access procedures can be the difference between receiving data in a few days or waiting five years for a data disclosure request to be processed, if at all. These procedures do not exist in a vacuum, and decisions about what data will be available to whom and how can be influenced by the interests and priorities of the agencies above and those with influence over those actors

Intertwined with access is the strong desire for exhaustive data – the idea that as many pieces as possible of the data puzzle should be publicly available. In theory, data is placed on websites and in reports. In practice, partial data disclosure frequently occurs – from contract amendments that are not disclosed to datasets that are summarized to a level that either intentionally or unintentionally makes it difficult for the public to effectively use. Leaving out pieces of data is a subtle form of distorting the rules requiring disclosure, a politically expedient way to appear compliant with open data requirements, while maintaining opacity that locks citizens out of understanding resource management.

Understanding the Grey Area

Issues of access and exhaustiveness are not unique to EI data, but they are roadblocks that come up repeatedly in initiatives promoting data for transparency and accountability. To help identify these challenges head-on, Development Gateway (DG) has developed a Custom Assessment and Landscaping Methodology that combines tool and process evaluation with key informant interviews. This approach gives us a holistic view of the ecosystem around the digital tools we build, helping us to design more effective solutions and data management strategies for long term data use, informed directly by the particular context in which we work. In the EI sector, we have used this methodology to conduct assessments in Senegal, Guinea, and Nigeria. The process uncovers not only specific digitization needs, but also key political features of these environments critical to either supporting or blocking further data use.

In Senegal, interviews highlighted a lack of focus on EI data among CSOs, with frequently shifting organizational focus in the pursuit of sustained financial resources. Lack of specific, sustainable funding from development partners has contributed to disincentivizing Senegalese CSOs from focusing on consistent advocacy for EI data improvements, such as pushing back more actively against loopholes codified during the revision of Senegal’s recent oil and gas law. 

Elsewhere, in Nigeria, interviewees noted that in public they are denied certain data from the national petroleum company (NNPC) but are sometimes able to obtain that raw data for use and analysis based on personal relationships with employees “after the cameras are turned off.” Understanding how various stakeholders respond on and off the record to requests has been essential for CSOs in maintaining access to critical data in a sometimes difficult political environment.

DG does not shy away from the political complexity of accessing and using data and data tools effectively in actuality. We use our assessment findings to help our partners and the stakeholders they work with shape their approaches, from data collection and validation to information rollout, in ways that are sensitive to, but not unduly restricted by, political realities.

Gaps in the Conversation

That said, our assessment work has revealed some persistent gaps that are not highlighted enough in global conversations to improve access, coverage and quality of data in the EI sector.

Coordination across government entities for better data. There is a lack of study and engagement with inter-agency mechanisms across government agencies. These structures are critical to access, share, and aggregate the data needed to create a full picture of the sector, as no one actor possesses all of the data. Needs assessments and strategic interventions typically focus on one or a few key stakeholders at a time, without detailed attention or investment into the ways in which these institutions interact with one another.

National governments are not monoliths, and there is often an unequal power distribution among government agencies. Differences exist between those with more resources and those with limited ones; and between those with greater financial and/or political incentives to cover their tracks, versus those who can benefit from the positive attention and resources brought by making EI data more accessible.

Data fatigue as a disincentive to further investment in data production. It is vital that an environment of open data continues, however, these initiatives do not often account for the fatigue that can set in among data providers. Our assessments revealed some data production fatigue, a sense of frustration among government agencies who redirect limited human and financial resources to make data available, but often don’t receive meaningful feedback on how their data is being used, potentially reducing the incentives for dedicating further time and resources to data production. This raises several important issues: in what ways is data disclosure accurately connected to user needs if feedback in response to data is limited? Is disclosed data being used by and useful to other government agencies, civil society organizations, and individuals? How could strong evidence of use reinforce the case for investment in data disclosure? It is worth noting that better understanding of data use could also lead to intended (or unintended) consequences such as data leading to investigations and awkward questions/pressures to shut down data supply to prevent further inquiries.

Exhaustive data is an honorable goal, but only if the data will be used. The global EI transparency space needs to pivot towards resourcing and investment that bolster meaningful use of existing data that carefully seeks to manage potential disincentives for data production and use.

Looking Forward

It is not all doom and gloom. More nuanced readings of the political context around the EI sector can also reveal opportunities. For example, there are distinct financial impacts and interests in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector versus the mining sector, which leaves room for different levels of governance and accountability. The smaller mining sector has fewer stakeholders, and includes some open-minded champions, who could be a critical example of more transparent ways to manage natural resources in a country that has long been overshadowed by the unwieldy nature of a wealthy oil and gas sector.

Conversely, there is room to amplify individual leaders and government agencies who are committing positive steps as an example to other agencies. Local CSO Right to Know has used a “name and fame” approach, highlighting the government agencies who have been leaders in installing freedom of information portals to encourage other agencies to follow suit. We are cautious that these examples are not a panacea, but are just some of the opportunities when a more comprehensive analysis of the power, incentives, and blockers impacting the EI sector is used to drive transparency and accountability efforts. I hope we can use the progress of the last decade as building blocks for a more politically savvy approach to open data going forward, one that continues to shrink opportunities for corruption and expands the transparent use of extractives resources for equitable growth.