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What Does "Open Government" Even Mean Anymore?

BY Nick Judd | Friday, March 2 2012

In a paper published earlier this week, Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson assert that the phrase "open government," which used to mean government transparency — as in, revealing the internal functions and decision-making of government — has come to also mean increasing access to data that may not have anything to do at all with transparency:

... “open government” policies no longer entail transparency. New modes of citizen engagement, and new efficiencies in government services, now share the spotlight with the older goal of governmental accountability, which once had this felicitous phrase all to itself.

The phrase re-entered vogue alongside the Open Government Directive, a set of initiatives that were supposed to be hallmarks of President Barack Obama's time in office, which were released in December 2009. Open government is now used to refer to efforts to release government data, without regard to the extent to which it offers a view into government's inner workings. It also describes efforts to oblige government to deliver more information directly related to monitoring its performance and tracking its decision-making. Conflating the two, Yu and Robinson say, makes the former politically fraught and allows government to claim steps towards the latter without actually making any.

Sure, anything that gets on the Internet in a machine-readable format, by dint of being easily to compare against or combine with other such sets of data, is naturally helpful for transparency purposes. But the concern that comes through in this paper — worth a read, if anything, for its abbreviated review of the history of "open government" and "open data," going back to the Cold War and NASA's first published data sets — is that the transformation of the term makes it less useful for advocates of open data or transparency.