“Open Government,” or “Open Government Data”?

by on February 29, 2012 · 2 comments

Paying close attention to language can reveal what’s going on in the world around you.

Note the simple but important differences between the phrases “open government” and “open government data.” In the former, the adjective “open” modifies the noun “government.” Hearing the phrase, one would rightly expect a government that’s more open. In the latter, “open” and “government” modify the noun “data.” One would expect the data to be open, but the question whether the government is open is left unanswered. The data might reveal something about government, making government open, or it may not.

David Robinson and Harlan Yu document an important parallel shift in policy focus through their paper: “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government.’”

Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of [open] technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability.

It’s a worthwhile formal articulation and reminder of a trend I’ve noted in passing once or twice.

There’s nothing wrong with open government data, but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. I think in terms of a subject-matter trio—deliberations, management, and results—data about which makes for a more open, more transparent government. Everything else, while entirely welcome, is just open government data.

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