Measuring SDG 16: a path forward for justice institutions

As reflected by Thematic Area number 2 of United Nations World Data Forum, making relevant public data available, and enhancing their re-use and value creation for better decision making, are crucial for governments and public institutions to be able to improve peoples’ lives while being accountable for their policies and actions. Open data practices (i.e., the publication of data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone) are, in this context, a means to drive social change through accountable, evidence-based policing and participatory monitoring of the advancements of the 2030 Agenda.

In this regard, the inclusion in the 2030 Agenda of a specific goal (SDG16) that promotes peaceful, just, and inclusive societies presents institutions, in particular from the judiciary, both with challenges and a clear opportunity. Justice sectors worldwide are important for the overall achievement of the 2030 Agenda, as they are typically the ultimate guarantors of the enforcement of the rule of law, in other words, the protection of human rights through social and economic regulations.

However, the judiciary plays an even more preeminent role in the achievement of the core of SDG16: while target 16.3 of this goal focuses on the attainment of higher levels of access to justice, a strong, efficient, and independent judiciary is a necessity for countries seeking to reduce violence (target 16.1), end violence against children (target 16.2), combat organized crime (target 16.4), reduce corruption (target 16.5), and protect individual freedoms (target 16.10).

Despite the high expectations placed on SDG16 to spearhead an ambitious reform agenda for the years to come, consistently and comprehensively assessing advancements regarding this goal has proven to be a difficult task. Quality and timely data on many of its targets is scarce and hard to get, particularly in those countries lacking effective data collection infrastructures. On the other hand, gathering evidence on issues such as perceptions of corruption, safety, or trust in institutions, requires subjective indicators that may be difficult to build and measure reliably across different countries and cultures.

Meanwhile, there is yet another equally important challenge: regardless of their centrality for advancing SDG 16, judicial institutions still play a marginal role in producing the necessary data to assess where progress is being made, and to inform the necessary policy decisions and interventions to fine-tune additional efforts regarding this and other goals. The main reason for this is that, beyond their expected jurisdictional function of providing justice, most of them still fail to understand their role as data producers, let alone to grasp the high value of those very data to assess and foster progress towards common social goals.

The debate on the need for public institutions to assume a bolder role as data producers and re-users is not new. In November 2014, a UN’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG) flagged most of the gaps and difficulties regarding the availability and usability of data to support the SDG process, many of which persist to this day, and underpinned open data as a success factor to achieve the much needed ‘data revolution’. Later in 2017, the adoption of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data provided institutions with a roadmap for the production and use of high-quality and timely data to support the achievement of the SDGs. To improve the availability of these data, this Action Plan contemplated capacity-building efforts aimed at boosting data collection and analysis.

For the judiciary, building the necessary capabilities to publish and re-use relevant data requires the development of specific data governance strategies. In this vein, this year’s UN World Data Forum will host several timely debates on ways to engage these institutions in the production of evidence and ‘legal data’ to advance SDG 16. These strategies should reflect on how these institutions can start collecting, publishing and re-using their data, and eventually join their existing national judicial data ecosystems.

While this might seem like an uphill battle, justice institutions should not navigate in the dark. They can resort to some targets contained in SDG16 that provide them with a blueprint on how to become more effective, accountable, and inclusive at all levels (16.6), by facilitating access to information by the public (16.10) and relying more on decision-making processes that are participatory and representative (16.7).

They also count on several proven, practical policy tools provided by Open Justice, a vision that pursues the implementation of Open Government principles by judicial sector institutions. It seeks to implement an innovative governance model for the judiciary, based on the principles of transparency, open data, accountability, public participation, collaboration and open innovation. Traditionally regarded as a legal principle applied in common law countries, according to which judicial processes must be held in a transparent and public manner, Open Justice now holds a broader meaning, and has become a philosophy that helps societies build a more people-centered, evidence-driven, and sustainable justice.

A main practice fostered by Open Justice is the publication and re-use of open judicial data by justice sector institutions. The publication of these data (taking into account the restrictions posed by the need to protect sensitive information) in open, machine-readable and re-usable formats creates numerous possibilities for value creation, both by public and private sector organizations and stakeholders, one of which is the advancement and monitoring of the SDG agenda.

Open Justice provides judicial institutions with an opportunity align to their work with SDG 16 and become more effective, transparent, accountable and participative. Meanwhile, the publication of open judicial data, as entailed by this vision, can lead them to more effective and coordinated efforts towards measuring and achieving the whole 2030 Agenda. This is their opportunity to move forward in this path, in order to build a better, more resilient and sustainable justice for all.