A Working Definition of "Open Government"

I've been spending a non-trivial amount of time lately watching and pondering the explosive uptake of the term "open government." This probably isn't too surprising given Global Integrity's involvement in the nascent Open Government Partnership (OGP). As excited as I've been to witness the growth of OGP, the continued progress of the open data movement, and the emerging norms around citizen participation in government internationally, I've also been worrying that the longer we allow "open government" to mean any and everything to anyone, the risk increases that the term melts into a hollow nothingness of rhetoric. My most immediate concern, which I've been chronicling of late over on this Tumblr, has been the conflation of "open data" with "open government," an issue well-explored by Harlan Yu and David Robinson in this paper. I've also been publicly concerned about the apparent emphasis put on open data -- seemingly at the expense of other open government-related priorities -- by the current UK government, which is slated to take over the co-chairmanship of OGP shortly. (An excellent unpacking of those concerns can be found in this letter from leading UK NGOs to the government.)

But for all my griping, I've yet to put my money where my mouth is and offer up my own definition of what "open government" means. It's time to fix that.

What follows is, at best, a rough working definition of open government that I hope spurs debate and conversation. This is certainly not 100% correct, all-encompassing, or definitive. Nor is it rocket science: this tracks fairly closely with others' thinking, and I suspect it's not too far outside of anyone's mainstream definition (including the Open Government Declaration of September 2011).

At its core, "open government" to me means three things:

  1. Information Transparency: that the public understands the workings of their government;
  2. Public engagement: that the public can influence the workings of their government by engaging in governmental policy processes and service delivery programs; and
  3. Accountability: that the public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance.

Into those three buckets we can then deposit many of the "open government" initiatives, programs, and interventions that are often invoked on their own as "open government." What's most important here, to me, is that none of these initiatives or interventions in and of themselves constitute "open government" alone. Rather, only when combined with the others do we truly see the potential for "open government" in its most powerful and holistic form.

Bucket 1 (Information Transparency): freedom of information initiatives; open data and Big [Public] Data efforts, including open data portals; procurement, budget, and policy transparency (e.g. voting records, meeting minutes, political finance transparency).

Bucket 2 (Public Engagement): e-government services; open311 and service delivery feedback loops; stakeholder fora and participatory processes (e.g. participatory budgeting, town hall meetings, both online and offline); electoral processes.

Bucket 3 (Accountability): anti-corruption mechanisms (e.g. auditing, ombudsmen); conflicts of interest and influence peddling safeguards.

It goes without saying that the world does not fit neatly into this clean paradigm. Electoral processes are as much a form of accountability as a form of engagement, and the distinction between information transparency and engagement blurs quickly when we talk about something like open311. But hopefully the general construct holds some water.

As for technology? I view technology agnostically in the context of "open government." Some of the above interventions don't work without technology -- think open data, open311, or e-government services. Others work quite well without websites or apps. Technology can certainly be a powerful force multiplier in the context of open government, and it can take interventions to scale rapidly. But technology is neither open government itself nor required for open government to necessarily take hold, in my view.

Rather than dive any deeper into this, I'll stop here to allow for others to correct, add to, or tear this apart. How would you define open government?