European Union: Citizens Should See How Their Money Is Being Spent

Customer: European Union | Site: European Structural and Investment Funds

Imagine the task of stimulating economic growth in 274 regions of a geographic area with an abundance of different languages, cultures, and priorities. This was the challenge facing the European Commission in implementing its updated Cohesion Policy.

An Important Source of Public Investment

The main objective of the EU Cohesion Policy is to reduce economic, social and territorial disparities and promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth by investing in hundreds of thousands of projects all over Europe. The European Commission’s Department for Regional and Urban Policy (known as REGIO) implements Cohesion Policy, in partnership with national and regional authorities through a system of "shared management." The Cohesion Fund, together with The European Union Development Fund and European Social Fund, makes up one-third of the EU budget. Funding is channeled into a range of priority areas including employment, research and development, climate change and energy sustainability, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, information and communication technologies, education, and tackling poverty and social exclusion.

The Policy has been an extremely important source of public investment in recent years, mitigating the impact of the financial crisis that started in 2008. The strategy is clearly delivering results. During the past five years, for example, Cohesion Policy has so far created 770,000 jobs; invested in over 97,000 start-ups and 73,000 research projects; and co-financed the construction of 24,000 km of roads and 3,500 km of railways. It has also provided clean drinking water for 4.2 million more people, and 5 million more people have broadband access.

EU Cohesion Policy and Open Data

Prior to the 2014 relaunch of the Cohesion Policy, there was already a high level of demand for data from stakeholders and users, including program managers, researchers, academics, elected representatives, journalists, civil society organizations, NGOs, and members of the public. Staff were looking in various internal systems for data, and it was not unusual for those searches to be repeated as future requests came up. REGIO needed a solution that would make data about funding and results available in a comprehensive, coherent and accessible way. 

Although it was a daunting challenge, the Commission decided the time was right to open and consolidate data in accessible formats. The open data platform was developed to support policy reforms in the next funding period, and to transparently show progress towards agreed goals and targets for operational programs. Deputy Head of REGIO’s Communications Unit Tony Lockett says, “We knew that many interested parties were hungry for accessible online data, that people were asking questions about the impacts of Cohesion Policy, and that an open data platform would enable our staff to do their jobs better, with less time invested.”

Lockett explains that the department had two overarching goals for the open data portal. “First, we felt strongly that European citizens should be able to see exactly how their money is spent. Second, we wanted to make our programs more robust through effective management. We felt an open data portal could help us achieve these aims by publicizing results of EU funded programs, by recognizing successful examples, and by making information available in a way that would increase transparency and stimulate debate about the performance of our programs.”

Helping EU Regions Be Their Best

Meeting this challenge was easier said than done. Much of the data was not externally visible since it resided exclusively in internal systems. Externally available data was spread across many different reports and documents, in formats that did not conform to standards for accessibility and re-use. 

“With Socrata’s help, we were able to deploy the portal quickly,” reports Lockett. “The project kick-off was in April 2014 and, using an iterative approach, the platform was launched at the end of July 2014 — with a modest investment in financial and human resources.”

With the new portal, Cohesion Policy is a great example of the use of open data in the EU. While the 2014-2020 Policy, with its focus on results and performance measurement, undoubtedly requires a greater level of accountability in achieving more clearly defined targets and indicators, EU countries can more easily publish detailed and searchable lists of organizations that receive funding, and provide regular and transparent reports and data on progress towards targets. 

While the bar is being raised for accountability by member states, the Commission is holding itself accountable as well. The purpose of the portal is to foster transparency and responsibility of EU bodies and the institutions associated with it. Ensuring availability of targeted and transparent data will contribute exponentially more to Commission-wide decision-making.

Why REGIO Chose Socrata

REGIO considered different open data platform options. It was important that the platform had been proven in other environments with similar needs and constraints, and where performance measurement was a key objective. “We looked at what people had been doing with open data at organizations with similar objectives, like the World Bank and the United National Development Program,” also users of Socrata’s Open Data Platform, says Lockett.

In addition, “Socrata provided guidance on the need to tell a story with data. The challenge for us was taking complex data and turning it into an engaging story that makes sense for people who are not experts in either the programs or in interpreting data. Data quality was also a challenge — it was like comparing apples and oranges, and a lot of data needed to be cleaned up before being incorporated into datasets.”

New Efficiencies within Three Months

The EU now has a single public source of data that’s been thoroughly checked, and the portal has already saved staff time. In the past, dealing with a request for data would have required interrogating internal databases — extracting sometimes inconsistent data and then trying to organize it in a meaningful way — and email exchanges to check figures with colleagues. Something that took hours or even sometimes days previously can now be done in a couple of clicks.

The portal has also rapidly become an important communication tool for the Commission, responding to a real need for information from journalists and a wide range of stakeholders. Says Lockett, “Now our stakeholders can find information themselves. When they can’t find what they need, it generally takes just a few minutes for us to send them the appropriate link.”

There have been over 1 million views of the platform during the first year, which represents a significant increase in visibility and transparency.  The portal has generated positive feedback from stakeholders and users, including suggestions for improving usability. According to Lockett, “People like the interactive maps and geographic information. We are seeing people sharing content on social media, and making our content richer by embedding additional visualizations.”

With the aim of continuing to balance complexity of data versus accessibility, REGIO is planning to take its open data platform to the next level at the end of 2015. A new version will enable users to drill down a level for additional detail, including thousands of indicators that monitor the performance of over 300 funding programs.

The Department will also continue developing the power of the portal by engaging further with groups that have an interest in tracking how EU funding is being used. These include NGOs and civil society organizations, journalists and the media, evaluators, statisticians, program managers, academics and researchers. “We’re hosting a data challenge later this year,” shares Lockett, “to find out how people want to use data to tell their stories and to ensure that every EURO is used in the most effective way.”

The European Union Cohesion Policy, supported by Socrata’s Open Data Platform, is improving operational program performance by providing new opportunities for engagement and "social control". There is still more work to do, but with an open data portal designed to bring out the best in every region, make them more competitive, and boost economic growth and job creation, the EU is well on its way.

The portal is hosted in Amazon Web Services (AWS).