Open Data Policy Step-by-Step

A step-by-step guide to creating an open data policy.

Public policy is an essential tool in helping governments make cultural shifts toward transparency and openness in the spirit of collaboration. As a cornerstone of open government, open data is one of the best tools data-driven cities can use to begin connecting with and collaborating with their residents.

We’ve developed this guide to help cities pass open data policies on their own. Passing an open data policy should be the first step in creating a sustainable, thriving open data program.

Read more about open data

1. Where to begin

☑ Build on what exists — don’t start from scratch

Successful open data policy does not exist in a vacuum, but rather builds upon processes and structures already in place within city hall, both formal and informal.

What are existing practices in internal data management? What is the current process for responding to public records requests? How might open data fit within or advance existing city goals or mission statements such as those of a comprehensive community plan, or citywide engagement strategy?

It’s critical for open data advocates to develop a strategy and approach to policy with this important context in mind, taking advantage of existing resources instead of starting from square one.

Learn more about Sunlight’s approach to context and strategy below:


2. Setting policy objectives for broad appeal

Different cities — as well as different community groups and individuals — have different reasons for pursuing open data policy. What are your city’s open data policy objectives and who can help you reach them?

☑ Define open data policy objectives

There is no shortage of reasons for pursuing open data policy. Whatever these reasons may be for your community, it’s important to communicate intended outcomes and aspirations with a clear statement of goals, values or purpose.

☑ Build a coalition

Setting and circulating expectations for open data policy will not only help primary advocates, but will also assist in the formation and growth of a true open data team. Stated objectives will invite logical allies and stakeholders from within government and from the community. Listen to their feedback and take the time to understand the full spectrum of open data’s value not only to those in city hall, but outside of government as well. This effort will pay dividends by helping to build the support needed to enact meaningful policy.

☑ Memorialize a shared vision

A working statement of policy goals can and should be revised and updated as additional feedback is received throughout the process of crafting open data policy. Ultimately, the refined objectives now building upon the shared values of the broader community should be represented in the policy itself.


3. Drafting policy language

After considering existing contexts and workshopping open data policy objectives with a growing coalition of allies, the next step is crafting and proposing specific language for a new policy or updates to an existing policy framework.

Start with our Open Data Policy Generator

☑ Learn from examples

New policy drafts can benefit from the ideas and language found in examples from other cities that have enacted open data policies.

We recommend that you explore the policies on our Open Data Policy Collection to get a sense of the kind of language other places have used in their policies. We also encourage you to copy, paste, and remix the content as you please.

Explore the Open Data Policy Collection

☑ Incorporate best practices

Our team at the Sunlight Foundation has put together guidelines that address what data should be public, how to make data public, and how to implement your policy. Incorporating these guidelines can be key to the success of your program and the effectiveness of your policy.

Read the Open Data Policy Guidelines


4. Collecting stakeholder feedback

☑ Craft policy in the open

Throughout the entire open data process it’s important to include all relevant stakeholders on both the open policy objectives and program design. This means stakeholders both inside and outside city hall—anyone who may have an interest or may be impacted by new open data policy.

This engagement is especially critical as the policy language itself is drafted.

Hosting internal and public meetings is one tried-and-true approach. Many cities are also exploring collaborative online approaches to policy making that empower external stakeholders to participate in the process. One tool is Madison, a free platform that allows the public to comment on proposed policies. Check out the resources below for more tools and guides for engaging stakeholders in drafting policy.


5. Enacting and implementing policy

It’s not enough to simply draft a policy, it needs to be formally adopted and implemented to move the city toward its identified open data objectives.

☑ Build support and enact

Building support for policy will be made easier by defining policy objectives with broad appeal and responding to feedback throughout the open data policy development process. However, those who need to approve the policy (executives, politicians, legal advisors, etc.) may give bills or other policy drafts more critical scrutiny once a draft (and the changes it hopes to bring about) is officially under consideration. Stakeholders who have been involved can serve as allies, testifying at public hearings and otherwise showing their support.

☑ Implement and follow up

What’s more, a robust open data policy will create a clear picture of what implementation means including required actions and timelines for those responsible. The public should be kept in the know and departments may need to be supported and updated as they make the changes necessary to comply with new processes. City halls should be sure to monitor progress toward successful implementation through regular review of the open data policy and program.

6. Announcing your policy

☑ Promote

A successful open data program requires sustained public participation. You should announce and promote the new or updated open data policy in your public communications. You should also share your city’s progress toward making data more accessible to the public by including newly released datasets, projects created using the city’s data and other key successes.

See our open data policy communications resources below, and consider submitting a guest blog to our OpenGov Voices series.