The Finance Ministry had a natural interest in promoting evidence-based policymaking, as its main goal was the efficient allocation of public resources and the curbing of excess spending. The interests of its new research unit, which started to campaign for access to administrative data, largely stemmed from the professional identity of its staff: they had joined the ministry with the aim of promoting evidence-based policymaking, they had the skills to use large-scale administrative dataFootnote 7 and they understood the potential in accessing the rich data sources of the government.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to acquire administrative data,Footnote 8 the Finance Ministry research unit decided to try and remove the legal barriers. To find allies and promote the importance of data access, they held a workshop for data owners and initiated bilateral discussions with potential stakeholders. In 2004, they made a first, poorly prepared attempt to amend the personal data protection law, which failed on the opposition of the Ministry of Justice.
Stakeholders included a wide range of data owners,Footnote 9 potential data users (analysts in the civil service and researchers), the Ombudsman for data protection, Neumann Kht (the agency with the IT infrastructure for linking large datasets) and advocacy organisations with an interest in access to public information and personal data protection (Eötvös Intézet and TASZ).
Several stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Education, opposed the new law, fearing that answering data requests would require substantial staff effort and computer time and overburden public institutions. In some cases, data owners may also have feared that external users might discover unlawful or corrupt practices in their institution. Lack of information or trust in anonymisation techniques at the executive level also added to such fears. In more general terms, the lack of trust within and between public institutions (inherited from the socialist regime) also played a role. In such a low-trust environment, any initiative not clearly linked to an interest that all players understand is likely to be viewed with suspicion, on the assumption that the initiator has a hidden agenda.
The Central Statistical Office (CSO) strongly opposed the notion that the new law should apply to its data as well.Footnote 10 According to its official statement, its main concern was the reliability of the anonymisation process. The CSO feared that the draft law did not provide sufficient guarantees that anonymisation would be complete and that, if this was the case, the CSO would not be able to guarantee anonymity to survey respondents, which in turn might increase non-response rates. Expert-level meetings with the CSO revealed further, possibly more genuine, concerns. First, some CSO officials may have been worried about losing their monopoly on publishing (or selling) the data and losing some revenues. A related issue was the image of the CSO as a reliable source of statistical information. Access to microdata would allow users to publish aggregate statistics of particular variables which may or may not be exactly the same as those published by the CSO. Arguably, if the average journalist or citizen has little knowledge of the intricacies of statistical aggregation and the long list of legitimate causes for such discrepancies, such unofficial statistics might damage the public image of the CSO. Lastly, though the CSO had achieved high professional standards and the general quality of its data was high, some CSO officials may have been concerned that external users would discover some shortcomings in data quality.
Most opponents doubted the need for the new legislation, not being aware of new developments in statistical methods and the potential in using individual-level data.
Though the Gyurcsány government (2006–2008) was broadly supportive of the ‘new public management’ (NPM) approach, actual demand for evidence-based policymaking remained limited, and thus there was no consensus over the need for improving data access. However, some stakeholders supported the new law because of their commitment to improving policymaking. One of the main supporters was the National Development Agency, which was responsible for allocating EU structural funds and was thus directly exposed to EU expectations to use these funds effectively. Furthermore, as a newly established institution, its staff tended to be better equipped with technical skills and more open to new public management ideas than most of the traditional ministries. Other strong supporters included the State Reform Committee and the Ministry of Economy. An advisor of the Prime Minister’s cabinet also actively lobbied for the initiative, as he recognised its potential both for research and for evidence-based policymaking.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Ombudsman for data protection did not raise any serious concerns during the official negotiation process (DPC 2007). There were two likely reasons for this. First, the Ombudsman’s mandate covered the protection of citizens’ right to information, and he delegated the discussion of the draft law to the unit responsible for this topic. The lawyers in this unit were equally committed to promoting access to data and to the protection of personal data. Second, anticipating their opposition, the Finance Ministry research unit initiated informal negotiations with the Ombudsman’s office before the official process began and, following lawyers’ advice, made adjustments to the draft before it was officially submitted for consultation.