Open government risks becoming an oxymoron

When open government, open data and transparency become too much of a good thing, government has to find a way to close it all down, and it needs to do this in full view of the public.

There are many reasons why governments are moving towards transparency and adopting open government principles. When I work with governments and legislators in Latin America (for example), they see the benefits of a more transparent governance system. Being open reduces opportunities for corruption and nepotism. In Europe the motives are slightly less clear, you get a vaguely stated philosophical belief in transparency as being a core tenet of democracy, etc. But it’s funny, this was never so in the past, in fact a lot of bureaucracy and secrecy existed because it was previously thought better to leave government to those who, well, govern.

But it turns out that transparency is a rather useful Trojan horse. And that the reason for this has little if anything to do with the public good or better democracy. It turns out you can use open data and transparency and indeed digital in general, as a way to subdue your civil service. So if you’ve been left wondering about the commitment of governments to open data when they say one thing but do another, chair big summits but then don’t deliver, talk about engaging citizens but then present powerless working groups with fait accompli, the answer’s really simple: they really don’t believe in any of it.

So what happens when the public groundswell towards more open and transparent government keeps rising and, to your horror, you realise the public (yes, those people you generally try to ignore outside of elections) actually like the idea of you being open and sharing. What’s more they want more of it because, well, going back to Latin America, it’s a way of speaking truth to power: of holding government (that’s you) to account.

They’ve called your bluff.

So what do you do? No problem, I can help: I’ve got a plan!

You can needlessly sell off as much controversial personal data as possible, all the time arguing unconvincingly that it’s pseudo-anonymised and that, of course, it’s in all our interests to do this. You can start with my medical records and then my tax data. Now for the icing on the cake: sell it off to a bunch of your corporate mates knowing that this will be unacceptable to the public, since having outsourced most of government to this shower of incompetent parasites the public now hates (and distrusts) them as much as they hate (and distrust) you.

The public reaction is fairly predictable and in a couple of deft moves you’ve put the lid back on open government. We’re safely back to the kind of open-if-we-choose-government you like. Hardly an Open Government Partnership. But then again, was it ever?

Of course, you’d have to be really cynical to do this, to take what I’ve just said seriously and no British government would ever do that. Would it?


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