Open Government: What does it really mean?

open government sort of means anything - Sudden Clarity Clarence

I have been researching open government schemes in recent weeks, specifically the way in which open government and open data is reported in the media. While I was perusing The Reboot website (HT @dalgoso) I came across a cracking blog post titled ‘Is Open Government Working?‘ It’s all worth reading but I was particularly interested by the following extract:

Part of the problem is the woolly, shifting definition of “open government,” which now seems to encompass any ‘innovative’ use of technology by the public sector. We need greater precision in our use of language. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials to account, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that fall under the open government umbrella?

I have been compiling examples of reporting on all things ‘open’ for weeks. Reading this gave me one of those rushes of recognition – I knew this already but I hadn’t put words to it yet. What I was reading time and time again were vague reports that are really about people talking about open government or open data, not really engaging with any of the data and making use of it. Coverage is rhetoric heavy – as one paper points out, that’s because of how ideologically constructed the ‘open movement’ is – and pretty thin on substance. This could well be because the entire concept of the ‘movement’ is way too vague to be useful.

I have read some supporters of the open movement who stress that the broadness of their interests is a strength: being encompassing allows different people to work together to create something really excellent. While this a noble aim, perhaps the lack of direction is holding back the real application of the open principles. It’s no good getting a bunch of data out there if nobody knows what they’re supposed to do with it.