The US Congress is moving with a proposal for a Public On-Line Information Act, as reported by NextGov. The proposal aims at making executive branch records available online and searchable. It is quite likely that there will be other congressional initiatives to further the agenda of open government and, more importantly, make it resilient to a change of administration.
As we witness important initiatives like this one, a bipartisan caucus on congressional transparency and the implementation of the Open Government Directive, I can’t help reflect about a question that comes up in several government client conversations, as they are struggling to comply with the directive and develop their engagement strategies: what is the purpose of open government?
It seems to me that open government is a response to different requirements and aspirations, not all in line with each other. These are a few examples:
- Increase transparency in order to increase trust in what the different branches of government do
- Decrease the burden from FOIA requests: the more stuff is made available on line, the easier it is to respond to FOIA requests by just deflecting those to the relevant web sites until when people learn and just stop posing questions.
- Throw raw data to people in order for them to extract value and create innovative services that will ultimately benefit citizens
- Throw raw data to people hoping they will help government figure out inconsistencies and increase data quality.
- Throw raw data to people to get their help solve existing and emerging government problems.
- Throw raw data to people to force other agencies to do so and further an internal transparency agenda as much as an external one.
- Look cool and make politicians happy
It is quite clear that, depending on what is the primary driver to be “open”, the meaning of openness changes, as do the effort put on different aspects of an open government strategy and plan.
Therefore, not only open government has a different flavor depending on the domain you operate in (defense and intelligence agencies are likely to have different priorities and engagement styles with respect to social security and environmental ones) but it may take a different spin depending on what the most pressing problems are even in the same domain.
If this is the case, how can one possibly determine best practices and common frameworks and identical rules of engagement that are valid (and valuable) across such a wide set of perspectives? Open government must be understand as a tool, rather than a statutory/regulatory obligation.