What is “Open” Government?

Having attended the #VanChangeCamp the other day, and with my involvement in Think City I’ve been thinking alot about what open government means, and asking around to see what this means to other people.

For me, “Open” Government is a government with a policy of transparency, where appropriate. It means that information that the public should have is made available in the most accessible, re-usable way possible, where appropriate. It means that process is made transparent, so everyone who cares, can find out what that process is, where appropriate. It means that public consultation and “thinking out loud” is encouraged, where appropriate.

You’ll note the repetition of ‘where appropriate’ up in the paragraph above. This is for the simple reason that not everything should be public. James Fletcher last night reminded me of the unintended consequences of the American “Sunshine” laws was that suddenly public servants are loathe to publish anything that’s not on message, and fully behind the goal, because those will be exposed, perhaps taken out of context and misused. Government has a right to privacy too, when speaking internally. Likewise, I’m a firm beliver in whistle-blower protection, because sometimes anonymity grants courage that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

After sitting in and discussing what #VanChangeCamp’s goals are, it strikes me that there are 2 distinct schools of open government people, and they are widely divergent. The first school of thought goes something like this:

All data should be open, standardized, accessible, reusable. Government should provide access to raw data, through APIs and let private citizens, NGOs build interfaces for the general public to use. Without public data, we can’t make informed decisions so everything should stem from this. Consultation is largely secondary.

This school tends to be populated by younger, more tech-savvy people who barely remember a world without Google, and believe that everything should be mashable.

The second school of thought goes something like this:

Government is for the people and of the people. At all times, people should be involved in governmental descision-making. Process must be truly consultative and be congnizent of many different stakeholders. Data is largely secondary.

What I call “greybeards” are for the most part found in this school. These are people who have been activists, and often, have more experience in interacting directly with government than those in the first school.