Thinking Tech

How open can and should government be?

Posting in Government

ust how close do citizens want to be to the sausage factory? And how hard should it be for critics to get the dirt they seek? If it's easily Google-able is it still dirt?

The government has issued a new Open Government Directive (PDF) that requires agencies to release "three high value data sets" in the next 45 days, create their own open government sites, and creates an Open Government Dashboard, overseen by the Office of Management and Budget, to assure compliance.

Some of this is atmospherics. But the Project on Government Oversight calls it a "Magna Carta for Open Government."

(The picture is from VAWatchdog.org, which is highly skeptical of this initiative.)

If it's fully implemented, and not buried by the next Administration, it's a sea change.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

  1. What will really happen to agencies that drag their feet, and the heads of those agencies, especially if they are career civil service or people close to the White House?
  2. How will the data be formatted and organized? Will it take a Ph.D to understand or is this really going to be an era of Google the government? Are you just pointing a firehose of data at critics and calling that open government?
  3. What happens the first time data found in one of these repositories becomes a scandal? We have seen how easy it is to twist e-mails. Think this flood of data won't reveal some skeletons in the Administration closet?
  4. Will bureaucratic in-fighters use this for score-settling, going after loyal Bushies who were embedded in the civil service during the transition. Or could it be used by loyal Bushies to try and embarrass the Administration?
  5. What about the data formats and the tools used to create these reports? How much of that will be open source? Are they guaranteeing the data will be under open standards at least?

One interesting tidbit already certain to cause controversy will be annual lists, for each agency, on Freedom of Information Act requests, including reasons for denials. This will be catnip to reporters.

Alongside every agency there will be watchdogs and critics, looking to see whether the directive meets its promises. VA Watchdog Larry Scott is already asking hard questions, like who gathers the data, who analyzes it, who crunches it to get the desired result?

There is also the question of just how open you want government to be. Of course military and spy agencies can't be open, but how open can foreign policy be? Every agency has data it considers sensitive, but that definition is open to abuse, as sensitive may just mean embarrassing.

The Administration has tried to open up Congressional deliberations this year, so far without much success. Hard bargains are only struck in secret, where harsh words can be exchanged before everyone comes out all lovey-dovey.

Just how close do citizens want to be to the sausage factory? And how hard should it be for critics to get the dirt they seek? If it's easily Google-able is it still dirt?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure