Opening the data

August 5, 2012

In March 2012 I reported in a post entitled “Open by design” a paper by Harlan Yu and David Robinson entitled “The New Ambiguity of Open Government“. A discussion of the paper has now appeared on the World Bank blog by Anupama Dokeniya entitled “Opening Government Data. But Why?” [A thank you to Jacques Raybaut at en.europa-eu-audience for the heads-up]. This is also even more relevant given the UK Public Accounts Committee report back so recently which was linked to and commented upon in Transparent e-gov.

Dokeniya quotes a recent blog post by Nathaniel Heller who stated that “The longer we allow ‘open government’ to mean any and everything to anyone, the risk increases that the term melts into a hollow nothing ness of rhetoric”. A similar debate occurred on the W3C list, and it is long been the case between e-government and e-governance. Heller brings in three ‘dimensions’ – information transparency, public engagement and accountability – all three of which might be absent from some ‘implementations’ of open government. He also emphasises that ‘open government’ itself is technology neutral.

The final paragraph from Dokeniya is important: “Transparency policies will achieve little if the political system does not create the incentives for officials to be sanctioned when corruption is exposed, for service providers to be penalized when poor performance or absenteeism is revealed, or for safeguards or structural reforms to be adopted when evidence of systemic governance problems emerge.” Essentially open data done well is a potential catalyst for change, any less than that it is a smokescreen around politicians, policy and the bureaucracy.

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Open by design

March 6, 2012

A very recent paper by Yu & Robison entitled The New Ambiguity of “Open Government” highlights one of the ongoing difficulties of the whole e-government and ‘open government’ debate, and so, for me, it’s not a new ambiguity but something inherent in the whole scheme of things. I’d already mentioned one of their papers in the ‘Invisible Hand’ in 2008, so the authors weren’t new to me either. Essentially, the paper proposes that there is an issue of semantics around the term ‘open government’ or ‘open data’, in that it can be open in at least two different senses – political or technical openness provides access to data, whilst philosophical openness provides transparent government, and it is possible to have the former without the latter. Robinson & Yu argue for clarity between the two in any usage. They try to remove the ambiguity around technical openness by labelling one ‘adaptable’, as Tony Roberts, as I related recently in Open Warfare,  uses the expression ‘ actionable’.

In contrast Fishenden & Thompson, also co-authors in 2010 of “Better for less: How to make Government deliver IT savings“, have written a paper entitled “Digital Government, Open Architecture and Innovation: Why Public Sector IT Will Never be the Same Again“, which largely ignores the semantic trap and instead creates another term ‘open architecture’. Building further on the Digital Era Governance (DEG) concept proposed by Dunleavy & Margetts, they recognise the failings of the New Public Management (NPM) dogma and the fact that it is still ingrained in government, whilst claiming that ‘open architecture’ will bring us nearer to DEG. I suggested in Accountability in 2010 that NPM was far from dead when the current public service leadership had all grown up with it, and were thoroughly tainted with its concepts, and as institutional isomorphism teaches us, it’s pervasive. In terms of ‘open architecture’ , we already have TOGAF, and that’s been there a while now, too. What we need is both philosophical/political openness so that the citizen can see why nothing is changing, along with the technical openness so that data, systems and architectures can ‘plug and play’.