When open data isn’t enough


As part of our thinking about how open data relates to government transparency, we at Sunlight have been writing and speaking a lot about why we think open data by itself does not automatically produce the transparency that allows us to achieve accountability. In her recent post, Sunlight’s National Policy Manager Emily Shaw explained why open data is a tool, not an end in itself — much like a hammer is not an end in itself.

A redacted FOIA request.
A heavily redacted FOIA request. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Taking her analogy forward, I’m arguing that much as a nail does not choose to get hammered, governments do not tend to disclose all politically relevant, sensitive and controversial information of their own free will. Which is why reactive and proactive data disclosure both play a key role in citizen oversight.

I’ve recently come across this piece about the future of the Millennium Development Goals saying, “People the world over expect their governments to be honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs.”

Well, the truth is: I don’t. And I never will. Coming from Hungary — a country where NGOs critical of the government are raided and editors of independent media outlets get fired if they publish investigative stories about tax-funded trips of politicians — I have personally never expected any government to be completely trustworthy. And that is only partly due to my Eastern European skepticism. Another, probably more important, reason is that I believe the dynamics of power and the motives of those in power are inherently opposed to complete transparency. In other words: Even if politicians are, on the individual level, honest and responsive people, this does not change the fact that political elites will always want to control the hierarchy of the flow of information.

Ever since Foucault made his observations on the Panopticon, we know that “In knowing we control and in controlling we know.” Political power will always rely on knowing more about your citizens than they know about you, and, for the same reason, governments who are incredibly tech-savvy when it comes to surveilling their people, will, without any difficulties, blame it on poor infrastructure when asked why they withhold sensitive (or even less sensitive) information about their work.

This is why I argue that achieving accountability in any country, under any circumstances, will always require a full arsenal of both freedom of information laws and open data policies, each playing a key role in oversight.

Black and white graphic of two hands reaching for a document with an arrow on it.
Graphic credit: Open Knowledge Foundation

Sunlight has already written a great deal about how real change requires a healthy transparency ecosystem in which a number of different contributing parts play an important role. The same is true for the necessary coexistence of reactive information disclosure, as exemplified by traditional freedom of information (FOI) laws, and proactive access to information, which is increasingly the product of open data laws. While one guarantees citizens the right to ask public officials for information about what they are doing and for any documents they hold, the other describes the positive obligation of public bodies to provide information about their main activities, budgets and policies.

In other words, by granting people the rights both to target specific closely-held information and to gain regular and broad access to less-controversial information, these two legal routes to access play complementary roles.

Open government activists from a variety of different backgrounds, however, still tend to think it’s either/or.

FOI advocates argue that open data will never provide us with the full picture about how our government works and spends our money, because political power is inherently secretive. They observe that if we lose our right to request information in a reactive manner, we lose our ability to control what they disclose and what they withhold.

Open data activists, at the same time, argue that reactive disclosure cannot keep up with the pace of the 21st century, where information is in datasets, rather than individual documents. The process of requesting information reactively is also very costly and time-consuming, whereas open data disclosure can change the rules of accountability by placing the control over information flow in the hands of citizens.

I tend to think both arguments are true, but that neither of these approaches bring about meaningful change alone. Traditional FOI laws indeed come from an era where access to information meant individual documents, not data. And even though our ability to use FOI for liberating complete datasets has increased tremendously (see Sunlight’s victorious FOI lawsuit to receive a decade of contract notices that had been posted on FedBizOpps.gov), reactive information disclosure alone does not have the power to create the kind of civic participation and control over public authorities that could be a game-changer to our democracies.

On the other hand, while the potential of technology is still enormous, the Internet will never make reactive information requests obsolete or redundant. Even with data inventories gaining momentum and demonstrating a new path forward for governments committing to transparency, we will always need the institution of reactive information requests as a strong investigative tool to protect us from the loopholes created by our ever-secretive governments. This is especially important in countries where high-level commitments around open data still fail to deal with information about who’s lobbying the government, who donates to future politicians or who gets the bulk of taxpayers’ money through contracts and funds.

From a policy perspective, a robust disclosure regime might look very different for each jurisdiction. And since access to public information is already recognized as a fundamental human right, our job is to figure out how that translates to our technology-enabled century, while also keeping in mind that power has its own special dynamics and will always need confrontation, much as the nail is not going to push itself through the piece of wood.