Clearer Framing Needed for “Open Government”

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Open government debate needs to separate politics from technology.

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“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically-sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In recent years, however, that traditional meaning has started to shift, and observers have remarked on “how little clarity currently exists over what open government means.”

Public policy has increasingly blurred the boundaries between the technologies of open data—a term that refers to Internet-based information sharing, particularly in scientific or technical contexts—and the politics of open government. The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative, and the new, multilateral Open Government Partnership, both promote the use of open data for a range of purposes, prominently including (but clearly extending beyond) the sorts of accountability measures with which the term was originally associated.

This blurring paves the way for frustration and disappointment. Open government and open data can each exist without the other: A government can be “open,” in the sense of being transparent, even if it does not embrace new technology. The key question is whether stakeholders have access to what they need to know to keep the system honest. And a government can provide “open data” on politically-neutral topics even as it remains deeply opaque and unaccountable. The governments of Hungarian cities Budapest and Szeged, for example, both provide online, machine-readable transit schedules, allowing Google Maps to route users on local trips. Such data is both open and governmental, but has no bearing on the Hungarian government’s troubling lack of transparency. The data may be opening up, but the country itself is “sliding into authoritarianism.”

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more transparent, but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse but may have nothing to do with public accountability. In effect, the term might refer to “(open government) data,” or “open (government data)”. Today, a regime can call itself “open” simply by building the right kind of website—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

In a recent paper, we try to offer a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. We use the terms adaptable and inert to describe government data itself, drawing attention to how easy or hard it is for third parties to reuse that data. Separately, we distinguish disclosures that are motivated by (or are likely to produce) public accountability, or what we call transparency, from those that aim to deliver improvements in service delivery.

Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.

Harlan Yu

Harlan Yu is a doctoral candidate in Computer Science at Princeton University, and an affiliate of its Center for Information Technology Policy.

David G. Robinson

David G. Robinson is a Knight Law & Media Fellow of the Information Society Project, and a JD candidate in the class of 2012, at Yale Law School.

This post draws from their recently released working paper, “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’.”