NOV 30 2011

Open Government – a chance or merely an illusion?

by in E-Government, Open Government Leave a comment

Examined from a bird’s eye perspective, reports on Open Government give a thoroughly positive impression:

  • Open Government creates transparency,
  • Open Government enhances citizen orientation,
  • Open Government enables citizen participation,
  • Open Government provides free data,
  • etc.


But is this really true, or only an illusion?

Let us examine a few points in detail:

The demand for transparency is increasing, not least because of the numerous scandals, the ongoing financial crisis and the details published in their wake. Although perfectly understandable, this issue is not a new one. In the USA for instance the Freedom of Information Act allows for the disclosure of information and documents controlled by the US Government; in Germany, access to federal data is regulated by the Informationsfreiheitsgesetz. In practise, however, these rights to access information are used very sparingly. The US has been exemplified as a pioneer in Open Government issues since the beginning of Barrack Obama’s presidency, but a glance behind the scenes reveals a different story. For instance, there is an internal handbook issued by the Department of Justice which gives advice on how to best reject such enquiries.

Participation is an important means of involving citizens in decision-making. It is also an opportunity for politicians to receive feedback and suggestions for improving their work. However, it should be made clear that in this case it’s the politicians, and not the administration, that should be the contact persons for citizen participation. It is highly desirable to carry out a dialogue in modern online fora about new rules and regulations, or better still, about redundant regulations, in order for politicians to act accordingly. However, arguing with the administration is largely useless, as it needs to abide by existing legal provisions. Participation, such as a discussion about whether I pay my taxes or not, is unproductive.

Furthermore, Open Data and increased transparency cannot be put into practise within existing organizations and infrastructures, but moreover require investments both in personnel and in technology (see article in Government Technology). Although this is a known fact, many of those involved are still surprised when the cost issue arises in budget discussions. And the costs are disproportionately high, especially for smaller organizations. This becomes evident when considering the pioneers in Open Data, which are nearly all located in large city councils (for instance the City of Vienna and the City of Munich).

There are also other issues relating to Open Data. On the one hand everybody would like free access to them, but on the other hand, for instance statistical data overlaps with services provided by analysts and market researchers, which are certainly not free of charge. And what about the popular argument over competitiveness? But are Open Data which are only available commercially still Open Data? That could open up an interesting discussion.

Now, what are our conclusions from the above? Open Government is a great opportunity, but one that will only achieve its full potential through fact-based discussions as well as concrete, and if possible cross-regional measures. Furthermore, Open Government should be taken into account in all ongoing projects. Organizations with great Open Government objectives and old hard copy-based processes will not appear credible. Despite the oncoming holiday season, Open Government should not be regarded as an endless Christmas list. Its implementation should continue with concrete measures, or it will fade into oblivion and become a mere illusion.

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Related posts:

  1. Where does Open Government Data come from?
  2. What Open Government Can Do For You

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