January 24, 2017

The New Ambiguity of "Open Government"

David Robinson and I have just released a draft paper—The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”—that describes, and tries to help solve, a key problem in recent discussions around online transparency. As the paper explains, the phrase “open government” has become ambiguous in a way that makes life harder for both advocates and policymakers, by combining the politics of transparency with the technologies of open data. We propose using new terminology that is politically neutral: the word adaptable to describe desirable features of data (and the word inert to describe their absence), separately from descriptions of the governments that use these technologies.

Clearer language will serve everyone well, and we hope this paper will spark a conversation among those who focus on civic transparency and innovation. Thanks to Justin Grimes and Josh Tauberer, for their helpful insight and discussions as we drafted this paper.

Download the full paper here.


“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last few years, that traditional meaning has blurred, and has shifted toward technology.

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.


  1. What happened to simple plain English?

  2. rp10007 says:

    “Inert” in particular seems to me not to capture what you’re looking for. Things that are inert are typically capable of being manipulated by outside forces and objects. You might want something more like “opaque” or “immovable” to indicate data that are nominally open and available but in fact not presented in a form that can be usefully analyzed by others. For example, data series available only as GIFs of a bar chart.

  3. Andrew McConachie says:

    I agree with rp10007 that ‘inert’ doesn’t seem like a good option. I suggest keeping with the visual metaphor and using ‘transparent’ and ‘opaque’. I like ‘opaque’ since it has the figurative meanings of ‘hard to get at’ or ‘unclear. And that’s really what you want to express. ‘Transparent’ would work just as well as ‘adaptable’ IMHO. But it has the added benefit of being an antonym of ‘opaque’. You should probably pick two antonyms.

  4. Harlan Yu says:

    Tom, rp, Andrew,

    We wanted to choose adjectives that (to the extent possible) can be applied to data and not to governments. We considered “transparent” and “opaque,” but people already use those terms to describe governments. Those adjectives, in our opinion, don’t do enough to distinguish the technology from the politics of the debate. That’s one of the reasons why we chose “adaptable”: people don’t already talk about more “adaptable governments,” but we do want governments to release datasets that can easily be adapted to wide range of new uses.

    Perhaps “adaptable” and “inert” aren’t the ideal choices, but we hope that can serve as a starting point for the community to come up with a better vocabulary. Words that are more plain would clearly be preferable, as long as they remained descriptive and distinguishing. Keep the suggestions coming!