Back to Reality: The Politics of Government Transparency & Open Data

A number of my friends and advocates in the open government, transparency and open data communities have argued that online government transparency initiatives will be permanent since, the theory goes, no government will ever want to bear the political cost of rolling it back and being perceived as “more opaque.” I myself have, at times, let this argument go unchallenged or even run with it.

This week’s US budget negotiations between Congress and the White House should lay that theory to rest. Permanently.

The budget agreement that has emerged from most recent round of negotiations – which is likely to be passed by congress –  slashes funding to an array of Obama transparency initiatives such as USASpending, the ITDashboard, and data.gov from $34M to $8M. Agree or disagree, Republicans are apparently all too happy to kill initiatives which make the spending and activities of the US government more transparent as well as create a number of economic opportunities around open data. Why? Because they believe it has no political consequences.

So unsurprisingly, it turns out that political transparency initiatives – even when they are online – are as bound to the realities of traditional politics as dot.com’s were bound by the realities of traditional economics. It’s not enough to get a policy created or an initiative launched – it needs to have a community, a group of interested supporters, to nurture and protect it. Otherwise, it will be at risk.

Back in 2009, in the lead up to the drafting and launching of Vancouver’s Open Data motion I talked about creating an open-government bargain. Specifically, I argued that:

..in an open city, a bargain must exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfill its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so too must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.

Some friends countered that open data and transparency should simply exist because it is the right thing to do. I don’t disagree – and I wish we lived in a world where the existence of this ideal was sufficient enough to guarantee these initiatives. But it isn’t sufficient. It’s easy to kill something that no one uses (or in the case of data.gov, that hasn’t been given enough time to generate a vibrant user base). It’s much, much harder to kill something that has a community that uses it, especially if that community and the products it creates are valued by society more generally. This is why open data needs users, it needs developers, think tanks and above all, the media, to take interest in it and to leverage it to create content. It’s also why I’ve tried to create projects like Emitter.ca, recollect.net, taxicity and others, because the more value we create with open data for everyone, the more secure government transparency policies will be.

It’s use it or risk losing it. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s the best defense I can think of.

7 thoughts on “Back to Reality: The Politics of Government Transparency & Open Data

  1. otoburb

    Funding is always a weak point about open government data. On the one hand, government needs to own the initiatives in part so that there is more justification to release said data from government sources through an official government-sanctioned channel. On the other, as aptly pointed out, funding can be slashed and justified by recessionary budget pressures.

    From what I understand, NPR operates on both government and private donations, set up in such a way that it’s an independent entity, and I’m sure that there are plenty of other (non-profit) organizations that operate under the same combined funding principles (partly-federal/state/provincial, part-private). However, NPR creates their own content, and doesn’t rely to such a degree as an open data movement where many useful stats are sourced from government.

    The open government bargain needs to also be supported by the general taxpayer. When budget discussions arise, starting with at the municipal level, one day there may need to be a shift in perception of where our property tax dollars go to support open data if we want to keep such initiatives alive.

    Reply
  2. Momoko Price

    100% agreed. The U.S. e-gov cuts are demoralizing, and creating a visible community is key to deterring pitfalls such as this.

    While the open-data community is very new and already has enough battles to fight in terms of persuading governments to actually address its basic needs, I do look forward to the day when we actively push for an transparency oversight/regulation committee. The disclosure of financial data is overseen by the SEC, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an agency/watchdog whose mandate is to ensure that data/information disclosed by the government is high-value, highly visible and interoperable?

    I think the fact that open data is often adopted out of administrative goodwill and political experiment keeps the data quality and regularity low, which in turn makes it hard for people to make use of it. This in turn makes it hard for communities/businesses to grow, which in turn makes open data seem frivolous to politicians (case in point, data.gc.ca has not changed one iota since it opened. If something doesn’t change and activity isn’t visible, it too will disappear, I’m sure). It’s a pretty vicious cycle.

    I remember you mentioning when we talked how citizens should create their own visible online hub and community that pushes for improvements in Canadian open data if we want to get somewhere. You know what? We should totally get on that. :)

    Reply
  3. FreeBalance

    The trend for transparency is accelerating. Congress doesn’t realize that citizens with internet access and smartphones are able to uncover interesting information about government and legislative mistakes that can skew debate. The political price may well be a lack of substantive data that can focus citizens on what is important.

    The interesting thing is that many developing countries are moving quickly with transparency initiatives from Brazil (http://www.portaldatransparencia.gov.br/) to Timor-Leste (www.transparency.gov.tl).

    At some point, the light might go on in the beltway when it a post-conflict country provides more substantive financial transparency (10 years of budget data) than the most powerful country on earth!

    Reply
  4. Jeremy Vernon

    Another potential motivation behind Republican efforts to curtail transparency initiatives is that they recognize that it’s better to fight for it while a Democrat is in office so that the opacity is there when they (eventually) take the reigns, rather than let the Democrats score points for opposing cutbacks when a Republic is in the White House.

    If they bundle it into the budget fracas, it’ll get buried in the MSM (which it effectively has been).

    Reply
  5. Ivan Begtin

    Actually there budget cuts are very bad for open data projects in other countries. For example, here in Russia I am trying to convince russian officials to use open data ideas as part government transparency initiative. After US “transparency cuts” were announced, it’s much harder to explain them that opendata is actually needed.

    Reply
  6. Scott Co

    So how do we make these Open Data entities self sufficient?

    Integrate them with the business world with value added data?

    Petition for new laws requiring more transparency?

    Reply
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