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Having taken office in May 2022, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and his administration are well-positioned to define new and far-reaching policies on open data. But to do so, his team will need to build on the sometimes-uneven efforts of his two predecessors, former presidents Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in. Despite substantial differences in their ideological orientations, the conservative Park and the progressive Moon both championed the concept of “open government,” which includes open data and freedom of information.1

For South Korea (hereafter Korea), open government is focused particularly on how open data can spur a digital transformation and unleash the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While Korea’s emphasis on and commitment to digital technology is well-known, how these efforts could be translated into more extensive cross-organizational interactions and even collaborative forms of governance has gained less attention. The good news is that successive Korean governments have developed a shared aspirational vision. The next challenge will be to address critical managerial and institutional needs, both of which are necessary for successful open government initiatives.

Taewoo Nam
Taewoo Nam is a professor in the Department of Public Administration and Graduate School of Governance at Sungkyunkwan University in Korea. He is also a research fellow at the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Since open data is the foundation of open government, this analysis discusses key issues related to Korean open data policy. In Korea, the term “public data” is sometimes used interchangeably with open data in English translations. It is believed that open data starts with releasing and sharing government-held data. When it comes to data in Korea’s case, the term “public” is often confused with “open” because open data actually means open public data (given restrictions on opening private data).

Technology can lead to further openness, but only if organizational and cultural barriers are removed. Even with well-funded public initiatives, strong executive leadership, and long-term political commitments, governments sometimes have failed to effectively harness open data to solve, or at least start to tackle, thorny problems. These problems span jurisdictions, policy domains, and levels of government. Designing multiorganizational, multidimensional, and multijurisdictional efforts that use government data is not a simple endeavor. National policy governance for open data in Korea provides several useful insights that other national and local governments can learn from. This analysis addresses three main issues regarding Korean open data policy governance: institutions, policies, and organizational capacity.

Korea’s Conflicting Institutional Landscape

An important initial consideration for understanding Korea’s open data policies is the country’s institutional underpinnings in this policy sphere. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS), the Ministry of Science and Information and Communications Technology (MSIT), and Statistics Korea each oversee some aspects of Korea’s open data policies. These three central agencies play different respective roles: overseeing public-sector data, private-sector data, and authorized statistical data. But because the distinctions among these three categories have increasingly blurred with the emergence of big data and the complicated nature of new data sources and data sets, Korea’s institutional framework has become muddled.

This means that Korea’s institutions will need to evolve to combine data from many different types of organizations. And these institutional frictions are mirrored in contradictory legal and regulatory provisions and a lack of consensus among the Korean government, corporate players, and civil society. There is, in short, an absence of effective digital leadership at the national level.

Institutional Complexity of Open Data Policy

Korea’s open data challenges begin with the fact that the MOIS, the MSIT, and Statistics Korea each exercise responsibility and oversight over some elements of the country’s national data management system. These three agencies institutionally differ in their main missions and roles related to open data policy. But the differences are not entirely clear-cut. When open data initiatives were initially introduced, open data meant open public data only. Since 2021, the MyData project in Korea has allowed accredited companies (known as MyData operators) to manage personal information scattered across the financial, telecommunications, medical, and public sectors.2 This project enables the further use of data through the pseudonymization and anonymization of personal information. In this sense, the distinction between big data in the private sector and existing open public data is becoming less pronounced, and the jurisdictional boundaries among Korea’s three major regulatory and policy institutions is also growing blurred.

The Bureau of Digital Government (formerly known as the Bureau of e-Government) within the MOIS acts as a control tower for the digital transformation within the Korean government, and its three divisions (the Division of Open Data Policy, the Division of Open Data Circulation, and the Division of Big Data Analysis and Use) in turn administer all work related to harnessing public data.3 The MSIT, by contrast, is the government’s lead agency for data generated in the private sector, including corporate data, industry data, and research data. The MSIT’s Division of Big Data Promotion helps establish data infrastructure, offers support for firms that handle data, and promotes data-related industries.4 The third key agency, Statistics Korea, creates statistical data, runs the country’s national statistics portal, and manages microdata integration services.5

The jurisdictional boundaries of Statistics Korea (which is tasked with the provision of official statistics) have become less distinguishable with the industry changes brought about by the rise of big data analytics. Both the MOIS and the MSIT recognize that the strict division between their data areas (data from the public sector and data from the private sector) is eroding. This institutional governance arrangement does not fit well with these rapid changes in the open data ecosystem. With the advent of big data, this ecosystem makes data even more valuable in new ways beyond authorized statistics and weakens the dividing line between public and private information.

To add another layer of institutional complexity, these are not even the only three players in Korea’s open data landscape. Other government agencies also shape policies that affect open data initiatives at the national level. For example, the Personal Information Protection Commission is a powerful regulator in charge of data security and privacy protection.6 This commission enforces Korean laws equivalent to the Privacy Act in the United States, where privacy protection is self-regulated, whereas Korea has a national control tower of privacy protection. Thus, the commission steps in when these three agencies involved with open data overstep in ways that harm citizens’ privacy.

Meanwhile, the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution designs and coordinates Korea’s national digital policies.7 This committee deliberates on and then coordinates important policy matters pertaining to the development and acquisition of new advances in science and technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and data technology, as well as new industries and services necessary for Korean society to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The committee includes the Data Special Subcommittee, which consists of experts and practitioners from related ministries, industries, and academia. The Korea Data 119 Project, which strives to harvest and harness ideas from the private sector, seeks to promote the opening, distribution, and utilization of data.8 Figure 3 shows eleven tasks and nine services conducted by a specific ministry or through collaboration between ministries. The three aforementioned key institutions play especially important roles in these eleven tasks.

Meanwhile, the Open Data Strategy Council, which is co-chaired by the prime minister and a data expert from the private sector, designs the basic plans for opening public data and improves these plans to assure better usage of public data.9 This council is a deliberative body that examines, coordinates, monitors, and evaluates government decisions and the implementation of major open data policies and plans. The MOIS formulates and refines the open data master plan, evaluates implementation, creates the relevant infrastructure, and releases data. Participating organizations under the council play other specific roles. To cite a few examples, the Open Data Center for Policy and Technical Support provides technical assistance and acts as a hub and clearinghouse for open data,10 the chief open data officer in charge of providing public data leads open data efforts at all public organizations, and the Open Data Mediation Committee handles disputes over public organizations’ refusal to share data or decisions to stop data sharing.11

Legal Conflicts

This diverse array of institutions must operate within a legal and regulatory framework that, unfortunately, has some inherent conflicts and contradictions. Specifically, Korea’s data-related legal frameworks include the Framework Act on Intelligent Informatization,12 the Personal Information Protection Act,13 and the Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data.14 Reflecting a massive paradigm shift powered by AI-driven societal changes, the Framework Act on Intelligent Informatization is a revised version of the Act on Informatization, which has been a legal foundation of national informatization in Korea since 1995.

Korea’s bureaucratic diversity has been replicated in these laws and regulations. For instance, the MSIT is responsible for implementing the Framework Act on Intelligent Informatization, but the MOIS is responsible for implementing the Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data. This regulatory diversity, in turn, has created confusion and potential conflicts. Yet no one law specifies which government body or bodies have the jurisdiction to manage the data that the private sector generates.

The same is true when local governments become involved. For instance, Korea’s current law on informatization requires all provincial and local governments to submit their basic plans for informatization (including open data) to the head of the MOIS because this official formally controls the local autonomy system in Korea, but the minister of the interior and safety must then provide these local plans to the minister of science and information and communications technology (ICT).

As a result, these two ministers need to coordinate and collaborate. This can be a tall order, however, because public data (under the MOIS) cannot be easily integrated with private data (under the MSIT) since the two different ministries’ jurisdictions may functionally overlap but remain institutionally divided. Invariably, then, these related laws can and do yield inevitable conflict among several different ministries.

Legal Rhetoric on Data-Driven Administration

The Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration legally and institutionally gave rise to data-related processes, procedures, and resources.15 This formal support of data-driven administration highlights all data-related government processes, including excavation, collection, processing, registration, and reuse of data. The act stipulates that all Korean government agencies must designate a chief data officer and have an organizational unit dedicated to data-driven administration. But the right people—those with relevant expertise—are infrequently recruited for these jobs. A starting point of all data-driven administration is making government data available to the public. Unfortunately, most government organizations, including in Korea, find it easier to define a vision and write a plan than to substantively increase openness.

Open public data is not the same as freedom of information requirements, although both necessarily require that government officials be transparent. Open data must have tangible benefits (and not necessarily financial ones) from further data use in industry, academia, mass media, and the public sector, whereas freedom of information programs must satisfy citizens’ constitutional (unavoidably abstract and symbolic) right to know certain information. Korea’s approach to data-driven administration tends to tout the idea that the country is opening as much data as possible, but that is simply not sufficient. Such rhetoric fails in practice because it does not provide well-defined criteria for success to guide the wide variety of actors who use and leverage data.

Without clear goals, Korea’s government will struggle, as many governments do, to work with nongovernmental organizations. Government employees who deal with public data need to be able to understand and explore the full range and richness of the data that different and diverse ministries capture. In many countries, not just in Korea, it is wrongly thought that the success of open data initiatives can be measured by simply counting the number of available data sets. Or else government-led open data initiatives showcase process flow charts and increased throughput instead of generating substantial societal benefits. This has been a clear challenge in Korea, too, as many corporate data users complain about the low value of open public data (due to its incompleteness, poor quality, lack of timeliness, or limited significance). Even government employees do not have a substantial understanding of what data-driven administration means and why it is important for the public sector, much less the country’s corporate and academic sectors.

Institutions Lag Behind Technologies

A related problem is that Korean laws and institutions do not always reflect the scope and intensity of technological change. Take, for instance, the Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration, which on the surface would seem to demonstrate institutional readiness for wide-ranging, technology-driven changes.16 Both the executive branch and the legislative branch of the Korean government have passed several ambitious, innovative laws and regulations to this effect. Another is the Electronic Government Act,17 which was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The Act on the Promotion of Smart City Development and Industry,18 the Framework Act on Intelligent Informatization, the Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data, and the Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration likewise aim to enable the societal changes and government innovation made possible by cutting-edge technologies. Korean legislators recognize the need for frequent revisions to these laws as new opportunities and challenges arise. For example, emerging technologies and new business models have shortened the cycle for necessary legal revisions. The executive branch and the National Assembly have revised laws quickly in response to emerging technologies. Interestingly, they aim to write proactive legislation, which is designed to remain effective not just today but also in the near future and over the long term.

But future-proofing legislation amid the blistering pace of technological change is never easy. Legal language, institutional culture, and organizational capacity do not always align. Well-designed legislation and regulations need to be paired with adequate budgets and staffing to provide the flexibility needed to adapt policy to new opportunities and challenges.

The trajectory of technological change and the policies that shape this arc are not preordained. Academics (and not just scholars in fields related to ICT) and government practitioners know that technological progress is not deterministic. They recognize that their actions can create new technological pathways, though they likely cannot truly or fully grasp the complexities of theories that try to combine sociological determinism and technological determinism or how those theories can guide their decisionmaking. Given how difficult it is to accurately predict the pace and scope of the development of technologies and relevant applications, much less their ultimate societal impact, public attitudes toward technology, whether technology-fueled optimism or a technology-driven backlash, can have more influence than rigorous analysis.

Over the last two decades, Korean legislation has had to be repeatedly and frequently updated to reflect changing social attitudes toward digital technologies. Recent laws were inspired by technology-based, hyper-powered optimism about open data. But because technologies have evolved faster than governments, businesses, and societies, institutional design by necessity has been and will continue to be modified frequently. While it is inevitable that some institutions will lag behind technologies, problems are bound to arise when open data authorities fail to be flexible and future-minded enough to deal effectively with the consequences of this lag.

A Bias Toward a Positive Regulatory System

Traditionally, Korea has featured a strong push for a positive regulatory system. Simply put, positive regulation lists what actors can do, while a negative regulatory system describes what they cannot do (a regulatory sandbox). The former enables interference, while the latter aims principally to prevent interference. For the former, the government intervenes to force the market to do only the specific tasks outlined in the regulation. In contrast, negative regulation imposes restrictions on the basis of law and bans or punishes certain actions.

In Korea, when government agencies have confronted emerging technologies, their reaction has nearly always been to establish positive regulations and thus to confine and bound the role and scope of the market. After all, all regulations ultimately have two purposes: encouragement (and promotion) or prevention (and prohibition). Data-related laws in Korea primarily seek to promote data-related industries and economic sectors. However, Korean corporations tend to recognize that the government institutions implementing and enforcing these regulations can matter as much as the words themselves. By means of an illustration, if a single data set on an open data portal is to be more meaningful, the data set should be aligned with other data, even data from the private sector. A firm may wish to use customer data from other firms, but Korea’s legacy of positive regulation does not attempt to monitor and regulate the results of using such integrated data (ex post regulation) but rather prospectively specifies who uses what data, from which different sources, and for what purpose (ex ante regulation). The result often is undesirable conditions for potential data users.

Discretion in Institutional Interpretation

Korea’s Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data controls the data that all public agencies have, but this does not mean the law is applied to each agency in the same manner.19 Indeed, the nature of data and related processes (including data collection, storage, processing, analytics, and use) may differ between agencies. This dynamic results in a significant difference in institutional discretion in interpreting the act. For instance, while some Korean ministries are mostly focused on data stewardship, others strive first and foremost to facilitate more extensive use of data. Even within the same ministry, different bureaus can have different approaches to opening up data sets. Expectations from open data and the further use of open data can differ among government organizations. Differences in institutional interpretations also arise from asymmetries, which are common at the level of data access and in terms of expertise between different parties (including industry peers, industry and government, peer government bodies, and citizens and companies).

For example, defining what qualifies as personal data is not clear in some cases. Because of that, most decisions have ended up with an overly broad definition of personal data. There are guidelines that define a general strategy for the use of open data. But because these guidelines do not clearly specify what is possible or conversely what is not allowed, there are discretionary decisions about what data should be open and how this data should be shared. This leads to public confusion: external users of open data often ask why this data is open in one ministry but not open in another ministry. The Korean government’s bureaucracy has often showed that when tensions between data protection and data sharing arise, a conservative stance commonly prevails.

Policy Governance Issues

These various institutional, legal, regulatory, and other features are key parts of Korea’s model for governing open data. But a country’s bureaucracies, institutions, and laws are not the only relevant considerations for assessing its stance on open data. Its approach to governance matters too, and this is equally true in the case of Korea.

Cross-Government Policy Coordination

The leading agency tasked with managing public data (the MOIS) is different from that for managing open data (the Open Data Strategy Council), and open data actually seems to mean activities for opening up public data. An important definitional component of the open data concept is use by anyone for any purpose, but too often Korean open data initiatives focus on being government-led efforts for the public interest. To realize the full potential of open government data and to see visible, measurable, and provable improvements, there needs to be a renewed focus on letting any party use data for any purpose within reason.

To this end, Korean government agencies need policy coordination across their functional and jurisdictional boundaries. Digital leadership at the national level entails collaboration among different ministries and even with nongovernmental parties. In this sense, Korea needs a clearly identified and strongly empowered coordinating body for open data policy.

A Missing Governing Body

Korea quite simply lacks a unitary national institution for data management and control, which, in turn, makes it difficult to move and share data across sectors, domains, jurisdictions, and organizational boundaries. To a casual observer, the lack of such a body makes the country’s open data management system look fragmented, but the real problem is not a failure of institutional design but a failure of national-level data policy governance: this is because in the Korean government structure, one agency cannot impose policies on multiple ministries.

To remedy this problem, Korea has considered establishing a new ministry-level data agency, but the performance of any such agency would invariably depend on the attitude (and cooperation) of other existing ministries, which continue to resist this idea. An ongoing issue is who should manage the relationships among ministries related to open data.

The Legacy of Korea’s Public-Private Dichotomy

Historically, Korea’s public and private sectors have been clearly distinguishable. As a result of that legacy, the separation between public data and private data has been unnecessarily strict. A monumental exception was the early response to the coronavirus pandemic. Contact tracing for confirmed cases required the authorities to tap private data (such as telecommunications data and credit card data), which are purely personal data and owned by corporations.20 But the successful use of this private data directly and entirely supported the public interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19. The legacy of this sudden shift in 2020 is that Korean government agencies, private corporations, and civil society organizations have started to rethink the scope of open data and how it can be used.

Still, the dichotomy between public and private data is apparent in the world of open data. As a result, both the MOIS and the MSIT take an integrated, society-wide view of public and private data, but their respective jurisdictions reflect the legacy of Korean institutional design and governance practices and history. What is more, this separation into public and private spheres under two different agencies also impedes organizational and sectoral collaboration and erects barriers to generating new value from data integration.

Big Data Crowds Out Statistics

Statistical data also factors significantly into Korea’s emerging open data regime because it plays a crucial role in spurring economic growth, industrial development, and policy formation. With the emergence of big data, the role of government-tallied statistical data is shrinking.

In Korea, almost all of the government’s statistical data—whether at the national, provincial, or city level—are open data. The authorized government data are validated by the national statistics office, but this process inevitably takes time. As a result, many academics and researchers use open data from Google, not official data from the Korean government. This raises the question of whether the big data compiled from Google can be considered accurate and valid for such users.

The scope of open data obviously expands with new technologies. Authorized statistical data are still important, but new sources of easily accessible open data are complementing and even supplanting official statistical data. Government agencies, businesses, and researchers inevitably have to decide how much to trust and rely on different sources of data and how to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. Given this situation, integrative and collaborative governance should consider both statistical data and nonstatistical data and how to combine and leverage both. Statistics Korea has a unique jurisdiction, but the Korean government should consider restructuring it to make it a governing body for managing open data.

Korea’s Open Data Conundrum

But Korea’s biggest conundrum and challenge with open data is for the government, in shaping data policy, to both protect sensitive data (such as personal information or data related to national security or law enforcement) and make data available in useful formats for a wide range of applications. Different nations provide different levels of data protection (for different reasons), yet they all face this conundrum. Korea is no exception.

The Open Government Partnership encourages member countries to learn from one another’s open data strategies and share their successes and failures.21 One performance metric involves counting the number of data sets that are open to the public via webpages, but that is not the only one. That metric merely measures input, not output. What is needed for performance management of open data efforts, therefore, is rigorous analysis of what is actually accomplished and how open data are used, for whom, and for what. If useful data is not made available in useful ways, it will provide little value.

The Korean business sector has taken a particular interest in this issue, not least by questioning the value of many of Seoul’s official open data initiatives. Korean data practitioners in the business sector often complain that there are simply few data sets of value on the country’s open data portal, where many data sets make it difficult to create new opportunities for industries, businesses, and academics. The data sets in the government’s open data portal are composed of many smaller ones that could have been stitched together, have many missing data points, and cannot easily be synced to match the formatting of others. It is time for government bureaucrats to change their approach and their attitudes. They need to focus on high-value, open public data and help market it to prospective users. This could help change the common perception in Korea that open public data tend to be low-value data.22

Potential business users and researchers, in particular, can help push government agencies to make more open data available. If they wish to have access to truly meaningful data, they should make additional efforts to file freedom of information requests. To some, this may seem like an unusual approach, but open data initiatives and freedom of information legislation have a similar goal: more transparency and more useful insights from government agencies.

Of course, freedom of information requires one to make requests by filling out a form. Requesting information in this way is not like using a vending machine: there are various reasons, after all, that a government agency can reject such requests. Or some pieces of requested information can be redacted and masked with exemptions. It may be very hard to gain a perfect or complete data set in certain cases. If the data is about internal government operations, agencies often do their best not to give the requested information. But filing freedom of information requests not only makes more data available but can also create political pressure and ultimately motivate government agencies to make more data available (even without requiring time-consuming requests).

Korea needs a strong governing body that can juggle the tensions between the need to protect some data with the need for more access to data. Currently, Korean government bodies lack incentives to facilitate data use, and they worry about additional responsibilities, accountability, and criticism that might result from releasing data. The country’s national governing body must be able to let all government agencies recognize the social benefits and multidimensional effects that open data initiatives can produce.

Conflicting Priorities Across Organizations

The conflicting goals of data protection and data use are not only reflected throughout the Korean government’s data policies: this disconnect also complicates decisionmaking within agencies. Within a single ministry, different offices can have different priorities and different constituencies. For instance, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which manages huge amounts of valuable, healthcare-related data, must juggle the need to support the further use of personal medical data and promote the healthcare data sector (data use value) with the need to protect patients’ personal healthcare data (data stewardship value). The ministry is not inherently in conflict with other agencies on the matter of data use, but it has internal conflicts within its own four walls. One such conflict concerns who owns data related to diseases: Is it the patients themselves? Or does it belong to hospitals and healthcare professionals? Or is it part of the national healthcare system? Or could it even be all of the above? Who owns or controls healthcare data depends on who creates the data, what contractual obligations they have, and what legal restrictions limit its use—and that all affects what kind of value is generated from such information.

Poor Communication on Open Data

As of now, the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in charge of national open data policy in Korea, and it has to mediate among different stakeholders with a variety of viewpoints on open data.23 The committee endeavors to listen to voices in data-related industries, but these voices reflect the interests of different sectors and can have very different priorities. Similarly, it can be hard for individual government agencies to ensure effective communication and collaboration between firms that need data and the offices that can provide it. And governments need to listen to and address the needs and concerns of individual citizens, too.

For Korea, this means that designing good data policy will require deeper, more effective communication between policy designers and all policy beneficiaries. Social media platforms and other interactive communication channels tend to be more effective at expressing their needs to the government than enterprises in traditional industries often are, but those communication channels can also provide collaborative tools to enable other stakeholders to express their views.

Korea’s Inactive Open Data Ecosystem

Data users, especially firms, often have a passive attitude toward open data. This attitude, in turn, reflects a lack of investment, interest, and even imagination. The commercial data industry is not as highly developed in Korea as it is in the United States.24 So the government’s role will be critical for creating a more favorable environment for the data industry and improving policies related to open data.

One challenge is that Korean firms and nonprofits need to be ready to find new data sources and extract new value from such data. Unfortunately, most Korean firms have discovered very little of the potential value from open government data, which is free and available from government agencies via the open data portal. Open data is categorized into specific policy domains (by ministries, public agencies, and public corporations) and government jurisdictions (by province and locality). But many users would prefer to see data across industries, across ministries, and across jurisdictions, and the current focus of Korea’s approach to open data is often little more than releasing the data that each public agency is willing to publish. When a Korean government agency determines which data should be open, it too often does not consider how to make sure the data can be used to create new value through the integration of data from different ministries and other forms of nongovernmental data. The main actors in Korea’s open data ecosystem are public agencies, who measure their progress by the number of data sets uploaded and downloaded. Open data has simply not been thought of as an ecosystem of relationships among multiple actors, one that touches and connects all sectors of society.

Korea’s Organizational Capacity Challenges

Korea faces some pronounced issues of organizational capacity that it will need to remedy to maximize the efforts of its open data ambitions.

Bureaucratic Dysfunction

Korea’s governance structure for open data is a barrier to making more public data available. Functional and organizational inefficiencies in the country’s national data management keeps agencies from facilitating open data projects. The rule of law is the foundation of democracy and good governance, and this is no less true in Korea. But public officials in the country often abuse the principle either by highlighting institutional measures for enforcing a law rather than the underlying spirit and intention behind the law or by using outdated or vague regulations as an excuse for inaction.

Oftentimes, the rule of law is not the problem, per se. Instead, public officials misconstrue the implementation of a law, especially when the law’s scope is restricted to a specific area and is in conflict with broader government mandates to share data. Korean government agencies often forget the ultimate purpose of policy (what the law originally purports to do). All organizations tend to strive to keep and even broaden their turf. Thus, in Korea’s case, for example, different government bodies are responsible for the implementation of different data-related acts: the MSIT is in charge of implementing the Framework Act on Intelligent Informatization, the MOIS takes charge of implementing the Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data, and implementing the Statistics Act is basically a core function of Statistics Korea.25

Despite this parceling out of duties related to data governance, areas of overlap and duplication are inevitable, and these areas are increasing. Although having one agency, one law, and thereby one mission is the ideal, that is not the case in Korea today. When there is no agreement on who is responsible for what, bureaucratic inertia and classic infighting results. In that sense, open data governance suffers from the same bureaucratic problems that plague other government functions: a government office may try to push some data-related work off its plate onto another office, or an office may try to seize control of other data-related tasks away from another office. As a result, inefficiencies and missed opportunities can arise from both governing hot spots (areas rife with overlapping administrative efforts by competing ministries) and dead zones (areas without governing activity in which relevant offices try to avoid getting involved).

A Siloed Work Culture

As in most governments, the traditional bureaucracy in Korea tends to be stovepiped, making it difficult to horizontally share and integrate data and information. The central government’s ministries have established, developed, and advanced their own systems, including information systems, databases, and software systems. A better, more consolidated cross-agency system for data management and policy development is badly needed.

The Korean bureaucracy holds ministerial data according to the legal rationale for which a respective ministry exists. The rule-of-law principle in Korean public administration seems quite distorted or abused because sometimes bureaucrats cannot think beyond the law itself. A prevalent issue among Korean public-sector employees is “inactive administration.”26 They do not consider the fundamental, original purpose of a law, but rather use their discretionary interpretation of the law according to their institutional preferences and what is convenient. The country’s bureaucracy was well-designed to address issues and solve particular problems defined in the law. However, ordinary organizational behaviors look very different from their design. Despite the necessity of cross-boundary data integration, it remains challenging work that is often considered out of ministry personnel’s jurisdiction.

Data integration requires all related organizations to be functionally connected, but the Korean system is beset by barriers. Meanwhile, even as government agencies struggle to overcome structural impediments to collaboration, data users are struggling to access meaningful information from publicly available open data. This, too, is difficult because siloed Korean ministries, in turn, have created siloed data sets.

A critical issue, therefore, is not whether Korea has a national portal site for opening public data—indeed, the country already has one—but rather how to make organizational silos actually open so that this data can be meaningfully integrated.

Improving Organizational Capacity

Beyond fixing Korea’s bureaucracy, however, the country also needs to improve some of the organizational obstacles that are impeding an open data regime. Job recruiters and headhunters complain about the paucity of data experts in the country.27 And while Korea’s national government, much like its counterparts everywhere, understands the importance of data expertise and assertively recruits such expertise for the public sector, private sector organizations, including even high-profit firms in the tech sector, struggle to find relevant professionals and practitioners in data-based fields. Both sectors, public and private, are still struggling to do so. A shortage of people with the skill sets to deal with open data is a critical issue. Indeed, Korean government offices at every level—central ministries, provinces, and localities alike—lag behind the global leaders in data gathering, data storage, data analytics, and data use.28 Furthermore, local governments face an even more serious gap in organizational capacity than the national government, while smart city initiatives increasingly highlight open data projects.

Korea will need to get more serious about this challenge if it wants to be a global leader in open data. Despite the Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration’s requirement that all Korean public sector organizations designate a chief data officer, in most public organizations, that position is actually concurrently assigned to someone who may hold another post and may not have the typical technical expertise of a chief data officer. Dedicated data professionals are very rare in the Korean government,29 and well-paid data practitioners in the private sector are often reluctant to work for the public sector.

As a result, Korean public organizations have outsourced jobs related to informatization, technological innovation, and more recently digital transformations (such as the adoption of AI, the use of big data analytics, and the transition to cloud computing) to the private sector and academia. This public-sector dependence on nongovernment parties is not automatically disadvantageous (since outsourcing does bring advantages, including flexibility and nimbleness). But the ever-widening gap between the unchanging bureaucratic core of the Korean government and innovative corporate expertise has put the country’s public sector at a considerable disadvantage.

To bridge this gap, the Korean government has promoted an approach to governance premised on collaboration among public and private actors. It has, for example, outsourced many service-delivery tasks. But it has also sought to ensure that decisionmaking about the digital transformation is informed by corporate experts, industry leaders, and academics.

Korea has some notable public-private partnerships of this type. That is why the country ranks high in the United Nations’ e-Government Readiness Index and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Digital Government Index.30 However, this intensifying gap between the data expertise available to Korea’s public and private sectors is making the government fall behind in terms of how effectively organizations integrate data across organizational boundaries and how they increase the usability of open data for the public.

The outmoded recruitment and promotion practices of the Korean bureaucracy may be an enduring impediment to open data unless countervailing steps are taken. The bureaucracy tends to hire most government employees using a national open examination, which works better for recruiting generalists than specialists. These generalists do specialize as they move along their career paths, but very few end up with the industry-specific domain expertise that private-sector employees gradually acquire. Instead, most Korean officials become adept at navigating the organizational intricacies of the government. For instance, good public managers in one bureau could conceivably move to a director position in another bureau.

Of course, Korea’s public-sector personnel management system is more sophisticated, varied, and flexible than can be depicted in a few paragraphs. But this system poses a challenge to creating a truly world-class open data regime for several reasons. First, data manager positions are often not filled with data experts who possess expertise equivalent to data managers in the private sector. Second, the Korean government’s generalist personnel culture encourages circulation between jobs to provide for more diverse experiences and to avoid regulatory capture and corruption, so employees usually change roles every one or two years. As a result, government employees in data-related posts also cannot hone their own expertise throughout their career. Third, one of the most important motivations for Korean government employees is the opportunity for promotions to higher managerial positions, which means they do not want to remain merely data workers.31

One option would be for a single unit or team within a given agency to try to take charge of all data-related work. But even that approach has advantages and drawbacks. One problem is that most employees do not know all the different offices and people who could be involved in data-related work. Many data sets in Korea’s open data portal do not capture various aspects of government operations and public service delivery. And there are many cross-sectional open data sets that were not made with the long term in mind. In most cases, periods of missing data result from poor organizational capacity, especially a lack of good data sense. For example, sometimes government employees seem not to understand why certain data should be provided to the public and who would potentially use it.

Learning From Korea’s Struggles

This analysis has discussed more challenges than opportunities facing Korea in terms of open data governance. But ironically, the discussion should not leave a negative impression of the future of open data; rather, other countries can learn from Korea’s recent self-reflections about its trials and experiments.

The Korean government is a key leader and coordinator of open data governance at the national level. The inevitable lag of institutional readiness behind rapid technological change, organizational obstacles stemming from bureaucratic inertia, and the gap between the legal code itself and actual implementation are all evident in Korea’s efforts to improve its open data governance. All countries may have similar concerns and challenges to some extent. An important lesson from the Korean experience is that open government is vital to open data. But executing the vision is not easy precisely because government actors that champion open data may not actually open their own data for the cause.

Open data should be considered a process, not an end in itself. As Korea’s experience shows, given the pivotal role of national governments in open data, the rest of the world can learn from the pains Korea has weathered and leverage that experience to craft a better governance system for open data policy.

Notes

1 Statistics Korea, “Open Data Portal,” Statistics Korea, https://www.data.go.kr/en/index.do; and Statistics Korea, “Information Disclosure at a Glance,” Statistics Korea, https://www.open.go.kr/com/main/mainView.do.

2 Korea Data Agency, “About MyData,” Korea Data Agency, https://www.kdata.or.kr/kr/contents/mydata_01/view.do.

3 Korean Ministry of Interior and Safety, “Organizational Chart,” Korean Ministry of Interior and Safety, https://www.mois.go.kr/eng/sub/a02/organChart/screen.do.

4 Korean Ministry of Science and Information and Communications Technology (ICT), “Organization,” Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, https://www.msit.go.kr/eng/contents/cont.do?sCode=eng&mPid=19&mId=25.

5 Statistics Korea, “History,” Statistics Korea, http://kostat.go.kr/portal/eng/aboutUs/2/1/index.static.

6 Personal Information Protection Commission, “Vision and Mission,” Personal Information Protection Commission, https://www.pipc.go.kr/eng/user/itc/visionMission.do.

7 The Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “About PCFIR,” The Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, https://www.4th-ir.go.kr/en/greetings.

8 The Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “Data 119,” The Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, https://web.archive.org/web/20220613225537/https://www.4th-ir.go.kr/en/data119.

9 Open Data Strategy Council, “The Public Data Strategy Committee,” Open Data Strategy Council, https://www.odsc.go.kr.

10 Open Data Strategy Council, “Introduction on Open Data,” Open Data Strategy Council, https://www.odsc.go.kr/eng.

11 Open Data Mediation Committee, “About Open Data Mediation Committee,” Open Data Mediation Committee, https://www.odmc.or.kr/eng.

12 Korean Legislation Research Institute, “Framework Act on Intelligent Informatization,” Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=54720&lang=ENG..

13 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Personal Information Protection Act,” Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=53044&lang=ENG.

14 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data,” Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=47133&lang=ENG..

15 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration,” Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=54647&lang=ENG..

16 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration.”

17 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Electronic Government Act,” Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=56406&lang=ENG.

18 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Act on the Promotion of Smart City Development and Industry,” Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=54507&lang=ENG.

19 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Act on Promotion of the Provision and Use of Public Data.”

20 Taewoo Nam, “How Did Korea Use Technologies to Manage the COVID-19 Crisis? A Country Report,” International Review of Public Administration 25 (2021): 225–242, https://doi.org/10.1080/12294659.2020.1848061.

21 Open Government Partnership, “About Open Government Partnership,” Open Government Partnership, https://www.opengovpartnership.org/about/.

22 Byeong-jin Jeon and Hee-Woong Kim, “An Exploratory Study on the Sharing and Application of Public Open Big Data,” Informatization Policy (2017): 27–41, https://papersearch.net/thesis/article.asp?key=3578603.

23 Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “About PCFIR.”

24 Korea Data Agency, “2021 Data Industry White Book,” Korea Data Agency, https://www.kdata.or.kr/kr/whitePaper/view.do.

25 Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Act on the Promotion of Data-based Administration”; and Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, “Statistics Act,” Korean Legislation Research Institute’s Korea Law Translation Center, https://elaw.klri.re.kr/eng_service/lawView.do?hseq=44517&lang=ENG.

26 Korean Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, “Introduction to Inactive Administration,” Korean Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, https://www.epeople.go.kr/nep/pttn/negativePttn/NegativePttnCotents.npaid.

27 Korea Data Agency, “2021 Data Industry Survey,” Korea Data Agency, March 31, 2022, https://www.kdata.or.kr/kr/board/info_01/boardView.do?pageIndex=1&bbsIdx=33253&searchCondition=all&searchKeyword=.

28 Hyerim Son, “Data-based Administration, No Budget and No People,” Busan Ilbo, June 29, 2012, http://www.busan.com/view/busan/view.php?code=2021062919264327694.

29 Wookjoon Sung, “The Big Data Policy in the Public Sector From the Data Life Cycle Perspective,” Journal of Korean Association for Regional Information Society, 20 (2017): 25–41, https://www.kci.go.kr/kciportal/ci/sereArticleSearch/ciSereArtiView.kci?sereArticleSearchBean.artiId=ART002235943.

30 United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “UN e-Government Surveys,” UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020, https://publicadministration.un.org/en/Research/UN-e-Government-Surveys; and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “OECD Digital Government Index,” OECD, https://goingdigital.oecd.org/indicator/58.

31 Seung-joo Hahn, “An Exploratory Study on Professional Identity and Accountability of Civil Servants,” Korean Review of Organizational Studies, 13 (2017): 1–32, https://www.dbpia.co.kr/Journal/articleDetail?nodeId=NODE07104052.