New Pew study: Public is optimistic about open government and open data

U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Bill Rand/Flickr)

Today, the Pew Research Center, in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, released a new report that shows the majority of Americans hope more transparency and data sharing by government will make officials more accountable. However, it also shows many citizens don’t believe government agencies are doing a great job of providing useful data.

The Pew survey of 3,000 U.S. adults covered all three levels of government in America — federal, state and local — and specifically looked at:

  • People’s level of awareness of government efforts to share data;
  • Whether these efforts translate into people using data to track government performance;
  • If people think government data initiatives have made, or have the potential to make, government perform better or improve accountability;
  • The more routine kinds of government-citizen online interactions, such as renewing licenses or searching for the hours of public facilities.

The survey found that only 23 percent of the public trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. Its findings also show that people’s views are largely shaped by their level of trust in the government: For instance, Democrats are more hopeful than Republicans. Other major findings include:

  • 56 percent of adults say government data can help journalists cover government more thoroughly, while 41 percent do not think that.
  • 53 percent support the idea that government data can make government more accountable to the public, but 45 percent disagree.
  • 49 percent believe government data can improve the quality of government services, while 49 percent do not say that.
  • 45 percent say government data can result in better decisions by government, yet 53 percent oppose that view.

The good news: People are optimistic that open data initiatives can make government more accountable. But, many surveyed by Pew are less sure open data will improve government performance. Relatedly, Americans have not quite engaged very deeply with government data to monitor performance, so it remains to be seen if changes in engagement will affect public attitudes.

That’s something we at Sunlight hope to positively affect, particularly as we make new inroads in setting new standards for how the federal government discloses its work online. And as Americans shift their attention away from Congress and more toward their own backyards, we know our newly expanded work as part of the What Works Cities initiative will better engage the public, make government more effective and improve people’s lives.

Since our founding nine years ago, we’ve witnessed the expansive growth of the open data movement. But, while the work of Sunlight and others in the open data movement has been accelerating lately, we realize many people still don’t feel government is working for them. Together, we can change that — and we’re excited to make that change a reality.