OpenGov Voices: How the Netherlands is making open data a permanent right for all

An image of Arjan El Fassed executive director of Open State Foundation
Arjan El Fassed, executive director of Open State Foundation. Image credit: Open State Foundation

Despite all of the different promises made by governments to publish public sector information or make government data open by default — whether through the Open Government Partnership, the G8 Open Data Charter, the EU Digital Agenda or country-level commitments — many transparency and open data groups around the world are struggling with governments that are reluctant at best, obstructive at worst.

In many contexts, it seems that governments know more about their citizens than citizens know about their administration. One important step forward in resetting the default to open is to create public, comprehensive listings of all information holdings; however, we have seen very few examples of strong index and audit requirements so far. Recently, the government in the Netherlands has welcomed the advocacy efforts of the Open State Foundation for a government-wide data inventory and has agreed to publish an index in 2015.

The flow of information has changed

If you think that information collected and paid for by the government belongs to us all, think again. Despite the launch of new open data projects, initiatives and portals — and despite various types of government declarations and action plans — the unlocking of public service information is not happening fast enough. One might wonder how many more research reports on the economic value and societal benefits of open data need to be published.

Information still flows from government to citizens, from professors to students and from media to consumers. At the same time, there are generations that do not need to be told what is good for them. They can investigate, publish and organize themselves. The way they interact with authority is completely different from previous generations, but the structures of government have not changed yet.

Information is a right, not a privilege

To reverse this, one needs to understand not only how government works, but also how to influence it. Open data allows people to see how their governments operate; public officials need to stop building applications and start sharing the data they hold. When governments build apps, they continue to dictate what people need to know from their own perspectives. This makes these government bodies not necessarily more transparent or open.

The call for open data is an attempt to confront a closed system from the outside. Open data raises questions about public institutions, how they work, how they deal with information and their public tasks. It raises questions about what data is being collected, used, maintained, managed and released. From outside the government, it is difficult to know what information the government holds. Often, public officials first want to know what you will do with the data and exactly what the economic or societal benefits you will create for them. Some governments have invested in research to help them decide what data to open. Others have organized speed dating sessions between the private sector and some government data holders. However, access to government information is a right, not a privilege for the included few.

Let us know what you have

A year ago, we sent a letter to all government departments in the Netherlands, explaining the need to unlock government information and the benefits of machine-readable, government-wide data. We are often asked which datasets we would like to see opened. So, despite well-publicized benefits, there are two major unknowns: We do not know what data the government holds, and we do not know all possibilities and opportunities that occur when particular datasets are opened.

In order to help prioritize what datasets can or cannot be made public, the first step is to know what type of information the government collects and produces. Therefore, we asked all departments to create an data inventory and publish the results, preferably in a machine readable format. Ronald Plasterk, minister of Interior in the Netherlands, who also serves as the coordinating minister for open data, agreed to have such a government-wide data inventory, sending a recent letter to the Open State Foundation confirming that the Dutch government sees open data is an important policy instrument. The results will be published in the first quarter of 2015. We realize this is only the beginning, but it still represents a major milestone for both our country and the whole open government agenda.

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