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Moving Toward a More Transformative Vision of Open Government

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 6 of 14. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 14 are online.


Liana Kleeman

The White House’s Open Government Initiative has set forth an ambitious plan to cast light on government decisions typically made behind closed doors and open information and processes to the public. No doubt, the Obama administration has moved the needle to some degree. Just six months after inauguration, President Obama set in motion the Open Government Directive, created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and held the very first virtual town hall (“America Speaks, Everyday Democracy, Demos & Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Institute,” 2009). Still, it is arguable that the impact of the initiative has been limited and the administration has not delivered on its promise. For now, this contentious issue will be set aside. Instead, this brief essay highlights the three principles outlined in the Open Government Directive, that is, transparency, participation and collaboration, and analyzes how they might lead to greater government accountability (White House, 2009). If the goal of open government is for citizens to take seriously their role as “the final guardian of the government’s responsibility” (The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, p. 71), then true accountability would seem to demand more than simple transparency. Beyond transparency, participation and, in particular, collaboration prove more difficult for governments to attain, especially when considering the limits of Internet-based collective action and the digital divide, but both are necessary to make good on the promise of open government.

The global open government movement has been facilitated by the rapid rise and prevalence of the Internet. In the digital age the Internet has allowed citizens to get things done more quickly and effectively, whether individually or in collaboration with others. Although information is easier to obtain and share than ever before and new technologies have opened the door to collective action, on the whole, “technology and the Internet have not changed government” (Open government: Collaboration, practice and transparency in practice, p. 131). Realistically, the Internet is not a panacea for government reform; rather, it is a tool that, when used strategically, can be powerful in effecting change. Furthermore, Park & Perry, in  Civic Engagement in a Network Society, suggest the Internet is best used to further deliberative engagement in which citizens take part in information and communication exchanges, rather than action-oriented engagement. This statement appears most relevant to open government’s first principle of transparency, that is, in making information available online, citizens have the opportunity to share data and discuss implications. For example, data.gov, an online database developed by the Open Government Initiative, allows citizens to search data sets and find other individuals with which to discuss the data. Data.gov also squares nicely with the second principle, that is, participation. Citizens have the opportunity to not just consume and discuss data but also to upload their own data.

As important as transparency is to the open government initiative, this first principle should not be pursued for as an end; rather, it is a tool that “can advance the much more fundamental goals of good public policy and legitimate governmental decision-making” according to Coglianese in Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions. Two primary benefits of transparency are: (1) it benefits governmental decision-making in that citizens can be made aware of issues and can participate in the policy process; and (2) it serves as a preventative measure of governmental abuse of power. Conversely, transparency can also inhibit governmental decisions. Fishbowl transparency may take away from the ability of officials to engage in genuine discourse (Coglianese, 2009). Instead, Coglianese (2009) suggests a reasoned transparency may best meet the needs of government while still upholding a degree of openness. Further, government officials may unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally, make data available, but not accessible. Although data is available online, it may be hard to find or be presented in such a way that makes understanding and interpreting it challenging for the average citizen.

Beyond publicly posting government data, citizens should to be invited to participate in and inform the policy process. Many forms of e-participation, however, are deliberative in nature, such as posting comments to a blog, and often accomplish very little (Noveck, 2009). In many cases, participation in the form of online discussions is not tied to action or change because “civic talk is largely disconnected from power” says Noveck in Wiki Government: How technology can make government better, democracy stronger, and citizens more powerful. Still, Internet and communication technologies (ICTs) can be an effective tool in the right hands, and government officials now have the opportunity to use ICTs in ways that enables them to “realize greater citizen participation—and therefore, more expert information” (Noveck, 2009, p. 34). This concept of greater citizen participation dovetails into the third principle of the Open Government Initiative, that is, collaboration.

Collaboration moves participation away from deliberation and toward action-oriented engagement (Noveck, 2009; Park & Perry, 2008). It provides the means to an end and concentrates on uniting networks of diverse view points and skills for the purpose of sharing knowledge and then acting collectively to solve problems (Noveck, 2009). By making the decision-making process open, individuals affected by problems have the chance to be part of the solution (Heifetz, 1994). Collaborative democracy would, then, seek adaptive change rather than temporary, technical solutions (Heifetz, 1994). In the digital age new potentials exist for realizing collaborative democracy, as the Internet is making collaboration easier than ever before (Noveck, 2009). For instance, social networking tools provided a means for protestors to coordinate, share information and act collectively during the Arab Spring, and, now, the Occupy Wall Street movement. Additionally, the development of web and mobile applications have encouraged citizens to report blighted areas in their communities and crowd source solutions (e.g., Code for America).

While transparency for transparency’s sake may “sell” (Coglianese, 2009), it does little for accountability. With the recent launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the onus for accountability is clearly on citizens and watchdog groups within and across countries to assure, not only that government information is accessible, but that the public interest can collaborate to end abuses of power (OGP, 2011). Regarding the OGP, the act of convincing governments to commit to open government policies is only the first step. Accountability, on the other hand, is much harder to attain, especially since citizens often struggle to turn their distrust in government and malcontent into collective action (“The Economist,” 2011). Organizations, such as the Sunlight Foundation in the U.S. and some media groups, play a critical role in that they collaborate with citizens and organizations to demand greater accountability.

In considering the relationship between transparency, participation and collaboration in the Open Government Initiative, it is important to acknowledge the effect of the digital divide, that is, the phenomenon in which individuals lack technology access and skills. At the most basic level, the practice of making government data available online is only a worthwhile endeavor if citizens are actively seeking it. With approximately one-third of Americans not online according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in their 2011 report “Digital Nation: Expanding Internet usage,” and an immeasurable number of those lacking basic digital literacy skills, it stands to reason that a significant portion of the population will not be involved in any deliberative or participatory processes as a result of open government efforts. Those most likely to be affected by the digital divide are those already marginalized (e.g., low-income individuals, non-English speakers, seniors) and those living in rural communities (NTIA, 2011). This lack of access to–and knowledge of–technology often results in social exclusion for marginalized groups, who—with typically lower income and education levels—tend to be the same groups least likely to participate politically according to Smith, Schlozman, Verba & Brady in ” The Internet and Civic Engagement.” If it is assumed that one purpose of open government is to enable a diversity of views and experts to contribute to change efforts, then those most affected by issues have the least chance of being heard.

Beyond those affected by the digital divide, the Internet presents other limitations to civic engagement. Hindman, in The Myth of Digital Democracy, suggests the political influence of the Internet is anything but inclusive and that discourse is typically controlled by the larger, more commercial media sites. Additionally, as online discussion and participation groups grow in size, the conversation becomes dominated by the elite, active members, says Shirky in Here Comes Everybody. Even though minority groups (African Americans and Latinos/Hispanics) represent the fastest growing demographics using social media, less than 10% of the population generates online content, and these individuals tend to have college degrees states Schradie in the May 2011 Poetic). In short, while the digital divide inevitably excludes a portion of society, the nature of online participation has its own limiting factors that must be considered in moving along the continuum from transparency to accountability.

In choosing the three key principles of open government as transparency, participation and collaboration, it seems the Open Government Initiative has expressed a vision larger than that of mere transparency. Tiago Peixoto of the e-Democracy Centre at the University of Zurich suggests many governments tend to concentrate on transparency efforts, which he calls the “low-hanging fruit” (The Economist, 2011, “Trapped in the Fog”). To take transparency one step further, that is, to include citizens in participatory ways and to enable collaboration for adaptive change requires more than simply making data available online. Despite the inherent limitations of the Internet, ICTs can lead to collaboration when combined with higher-level strategies and structures (Scearce et al., 2009). Whether or not the Open Government Initiative has delivered on its promise or has fallen short of citizens’ expectations, the current administration has set forth an admirable vision of open government by acknowledging the need to move beyond transparency. Because adaptive change requires participation and collaboration, not just the availability of data, the question of how to engage citizens in change efforts should be given greater consideration moving forward (Noveck, 2009).

Liana Kleeman is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address, or by posting a comment below each article.

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