The nature of Open Government and the relationship between citizens and Government


(this page is part of my 2011 report on “Open Data: Emerging trends, issues and best practices”. Please follow that link to reach the Introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to also check the notes for readers! of the initial report of the same project, “Open Data, Open Society”)

Open Data are an essential part of Open Government. Almost everybody agrees with this. Agreement on what exactly defines Open Government is, however, less universal. In January 2011 Lucas Cioffi, replying to Alex Howard, wrote:

The biggest difference between Gov 2.0 and OpenGov seems to be how they approach transparency. Gov 2.0 is about transparency through open data and the "government as a platform" idea. "Open Government" is about Transparency for the sake of accountability, but not necessarily interaction, cooperation and reuse of data outside the government.
`[who advocates]` Open Data does so in order to make it accessible to citizens rather than to hold government accountable. This is not to say that one approach is better than another, but this is to say that there seem to be two very different motivations for advocating for transparency, and they do seem to correlate to whether people label themselves as part of Gov 2.0 or part of OpenGov.

In general, reflection and debate on this point is accelerating. At the moment, some characteristics of Open Government on which there is more or less agreement are that Open Government is about:

  • deliberation, choice, influence on decisions and participation as a common citizen

  • letting all citizens use technology to participate, monitor and define government activities. In other words, Government is really Open when it’s based on interaction, not only on some set of infrastructures and methods imposed top-down

  • diffused, seamless conversations, that are only possible with digital technologies, online social networks and so on, between public employees and citizens.

The obvious potential limit of these definitions is that they rely on a big, still largely unknown factor, that is actual citizen participation. When data are opened, the problem becomes to have everybody use them, in order to actually realize Open Government as defined above. This issue will be explored in detail in the next paragraphs, but we can already say that Open Data are highlighting the critical, weak points in the present and future relationship between citizens and governments.

While citizens participation is essential, especially in times of social and economic crisis, achieving it on a large scale won’t be easy. Frustration and lack of trust in institutions in many countries are high, so it’s no surprise when people express doubts that opening government data won’t help much in fixing things.

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