Why public utility companies and government-owned companies must publish open data.
The government of Oman has put a significant amount of effort into promoting the release of open data by government entities. This effort should not be focused only on the government itself but must expand to reach public utility companies and government-owned companies, especially as the number of these companies, and the amount of data they control, continues to grow.
Public utility companies differ substantially from other businesses in Oman. Public utility companies deliver fundamental services in the field of communications, transport, energy, and other fields that are vital to the livelihood of individuals and the operation of society at large. As a result, these companies are highly regulated by the government and some operate on the basis of special licences and concessions granted by the government. Due to the fundamental nature of the services provided, these companies possess crucial information about society that is critical in enabling the government to plan and make informed policy decisions, especially in regard to the delivery of tightly integrated public utilities. In the same manner that they would benefit from open data published by the government itself, the government, the private sector, civil society, and academia will benefit greatly if the data held by such companies is also published openly. For example, publishing a map of the sewage network operated by a utility company as open data would not only help the government itself when developing its public housing masterplans, but it can also support the broadband company in its expansion plans by utilising the infrastructure already laid by the sewage company, it can help civil society hold the government and the company accountable, and can equip academics with a vital resource for research.
Government-owned companies also differ greatly from other companies due to the fact that they are owned and controlled by the government. Many government-owned companies were at some point a part of a government entity delivering public functions, and the government later decided to spin them off as companies not regulated by the typical laws and regulations that apply to government entities. This may have been motivated by the desire to pave the way for privatisation, to enhance efficiency, or to partner up with experienced technical operators. However, the reality remains that these companies are funded by public funds and taxpayers, and society should have a right to have access to the data they possess in the same way that society already has access to open government data and following the same logic that the Omani government follows in promoting the release of open government data.
The proposal presented by this piece for treating information held by public utility companies and government-owned companies as public sector information is not a new concept in Oman. The Omani Records and Archives Law deems records held by public utility companies and companies in which the government has at least a 25% shareholding as public records. Consequently, these companies are required to hand over certain categories of their records to the National Records and Archives Authority after the lapse of specific time limits in order to preserve them for future generations and to make them available to members of the public.
Of course, the obligations imposed by the Records and Archives Law are not the same as those expected of a public sector open data publisher, as the Records and Archives Law requires the entities to deposit historical records and allows the members to view them only after the lapse of several decades. Open data publishers, on the other hand, are expected to publish their data promptly and, if possible, in real-time. Nonetheless, this Records and Archives Law is a good illustration of how the public has a legal right to access the information public utility companies and government-owned companies possess.
The Omani government appears to be aware of the importance of publishing data held by government-owned companies, but not public utility companies. The most recent version of the scope of the Omani Open Data Policy published by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and Information Technology in June 2020 explicitly includes companies in which the government has at least a 40% shareholding. While this can be seen as a positive development in comparison to the previous Open Data Policy, which did not mention government-owned companies at all, it remains insufficient for two reasons. First of all, the scope of the policy does not extend to public utility companies which may not necessarily be owned by the government. Secondly, this policy is unlikely to have any influence over the behaviour of government-owned companies given that the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and Information Technology has no actual authority over the conduct of public utility companies or government-owned companies.
In order for the government to have an influence over public utility companies and government-owned companies, it must instruct such companies to release their data through the government entities responsible for them, namely, the Authority for Public Service Regulation, which is responsible for regulating the majority of public utility companies, and the Oman Investment Authority, which is responsible for regulating the majority of government-owned companies. Alternatively, and more powerfully, the government should consider passing a law by royal decree to govern the publication of open data held by proper government entities, public utility companies, and government-owned companies, in the same way that national records and archives are governed by a law promulgated by royal decree. Such an approach would immediately capture all public utility companies and government-owned companies without any question as to its binding nature.
There is no doubt that the data held by public utility companies and government-owned companies is useful for the government, the private sector, civil society, and academia. Liberating this data, therefore, would present Oman with an immediate opportunity to take its open data efforts to the next level.