February 6, 2023

Judge Declares Some PACER Fees Illegal but Does Not Go Far Enough

Five years ago, in a post called “Making Excuses for Fees on Electronic Public Records,” I described my attempts to persuade the federal Judiciary to stop charging for access to their web-based system, PACER (“Public Access to Court Electronic Records”). Nearly every search, page view, and PDF download from the system incurs a fee ranging […]

Reflecting on Sunshine Week

Last Wednesday evening, I attended the D.C. Open Government Summit: Street View, which took place at the National Press Club in conjunction with Sunshine Week. The Summit was sponsored by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, a non-profit that “seeks to enhance the public’s access to government information and ensure the transparency of government operations of […]

Local Expertise is Exceedingly Valuable- Principle #7 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

One of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my research has been my series of conversations with innovators in civic engagement in various cities across the country. These conversations have been enlightening for me as I think about how Washington, DC can maximize its natural advantages to foster civic engagement in its neighborhoods. The […]

Government Needs to Embrace the Social Web – Principle #6 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

As Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that – it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Federal government shutdown has, at least temporarily, shed light on the valuable day-to-day work done by the Federal government and […]

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.

Abstract:

“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.