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 both formal and informal processes and structures already in place.

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 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. Set 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. Draft 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 ideas and language found in examples from other cities that have enacted open data policies.

Explore existing open data policies in our Open Data Policy Collection to get a sense of the kind of language commonly used in open data policies. Cities are encouraged to copy, paste, and adjust the content as to better suit their needs.

Explore the Open Data Policy Collection

☑ Incorporate best practices

The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team created guidelines addressing what data should be public, how to make data public, and how to implement policy. Incorporating these guidelines can aid in the success of an open data program, and ensure effectiveness of open data policy.

Read the Open Data Policy Guidelines


4. Collect stakeholder feedback

☑ Craft policy in the open

It’s important to include all relevant stakeholders throughout the entire open data process, including discussions of policy objectives and program design. Relevant stakeholders include those both inside and outside city hall — in essence, anyone who may have an interest or be impacted by new open data policy.

This engagement is especially critical in drafting policy language.

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. This approach was used to great success in Madison, where the city provided a free platform facilitating public comment on proposed policies. Check out the resources below for more tools and guides for engaging stakeholders in drafting policy.


5. Enact and implement policy

It’s not enough to simply draft a policy, it must 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 demonstrating their support.

☑ Implement and follow up

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 require support and consistent communication 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. Announce policy

☑ Promote

A successful open data program requires sustained public participation. The new or updated open data policy should be announced through several channels to communicate with the public — government websites, social media, etc. Cities should also share progress toward making data more accessible to the public by including newly released datasets, projects created using the city’s data, and other notable successes.

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