Today I met the deputy commissioner in an Indian municipality and we discussed about how e-government strategies and priorities are evolving, and of course we touched upon open government.
He told me that he had spent two hours prior to our meeting dealing with a FOIA request (Freedom of Information is called Right to Information in India). We went through some of the developments in the US, with the Open Government Directive, and we chatted about how better it would be to just publish all public information online so that whoever has a request can self-serve.
One obstacle to information provision, he said, is the fear of transparency, something that is certainly not limited to India and is one of the reasons why open government activists have been so vocal about having more data published online.
What struck us was the realization that publishing much more information looks like killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand more published data may lead to fewer FOIA requests (although this is not necessarily the case). On the other hand, abundance of data may lead to lower transparency, as citizens submerged with loads of information are not likely to make much sense out of it (this is what I call obscurity by transparency).
Unfortunately this “attractive” line of reasoning, which suggests a win-win situation for government, has a serious flaw: activists will take that data, reveal some inconvenient truth and cause government to dig out more data to defend itself.
So, will citizens ultimately benefit from all this?
- If government floods them with information, it is unlikely.
- If activist groups use that data to push their own agenda, it is unlikely.
- If nothing changes and citizens keep going through FOIA requests, at least they get a government response to a specific question.
Even if it takes time and ends up pointing to information on a web site, the latter may be better than swimming in the Data.gov pool or grabbing a life vest thrown by an activist group.
Maybe FOIA is not so bad, after all.
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