Defining what open government means is complicated by the range of definitions, meanings and motivations that exist – with new ones still emerging. In some ways, the variety of definitions and meanings resembles the quarter century discussion around the meaning of sustainable development. While these discussions can be frustrating – and no definition can settle a debate as to whether a government is open or not – considering these various approaches, definitions, policy statements and principles helps to clarify the edges of this fuzzy term.
The following table presents a curated list of open government definitions, categorized into academic, government and non-governmental sources. Definitions of open government vary not only across sectors but within them. The need for increased research and the establishment of a neutral knowledge broker for the field is evidenced by the below table. As exemplified below, definitions may focus to varying degrees on the key elements of transparency, citizen participation and collaboration, among others, depending on the context.
We welcome your feedback on approaches or definitions we have missed – please leave a comment below.
|Full Reference||Open Government Definition|
|“Open Government.” Wikipedia.org. Last Modified on July 11, 2013.||Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. In its broadest construction it opposes reason of state and other considerations, which have tended to legitimize extensive state secrecy. The origins of open government arguments can be dated to the time of the European Enlightenment: to debates about the proper construction of a then nascent democratic society.Among recent developments is the theory of open source governance, which advocates the application of the free software movement to democratic principles, enabling interested citizens to get more directly involved in the legislative process.|
|Weinstein, Jeremy and Goldstein, Joshua.“The Benefits of a Big Tent: Opening Up Government in Developing Countries.” UCLA Law Review, Disc. 38 (2012): 40-48.||Conceptual clarity about the distinct meanings of open data and open government will benefit everyone. But the power of a close partnership between these two movements is also becoming evident. The big tent is strengthening both movements and creating opportunities for progress in places where traditional reforms have stalled or failed to fulfill their promises. While clarity about distinct goals and policies is welcome, separation risks setting back an emerging, more unified movement that is bringing technology and innovation to the age-old task of making government work for people.|
|Peixoto, Tiago, “Open Government, Feedback Loops, and Semantic Extravaganza.” Democracy Spot. June 17, 2013.||I personally have witnessed the creation of a number of names, including e-democracy, e-participation, e-governance, government 2.0, and open government. While some may argue that these names are different among themselves, no real consensus exists about what differentiates them. The common denominator is some fuzzy notion that technology may promote more democratic and/or efficient forms of government.|
|Parks, W. (1957). “Open Government Principle: Applying the right to know under the Constitution.” George Washington Law Review, 26, 1.||The general availability of government information is the fundamental basis upon which popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed rest, subject to several important restrictions on this general rule (i.e., to allow for the carrying out of the constitutional powers of the Congress and the President; to protect the personal and property rights of individuals, corporations and associations; to acknowledge administrative complications as to whether to release, to withhold, or to partially release particular types of information under particular conditions; to protect confidentiality of communications internal to government; to acknowledge the difficulty of segregating information when parts of a document should be released and parts withheld).|
|Little, J. W., & Tompkins, T. (1974). “Open Government Laws: An Insider’s View.” North Carolina Law Review, 53, 451.||“Government in the Sunshine” laws enacted in most U.S. states during the two decade period preceding 1975 are intended to make the meetings of governmental bodies open to the public, with the objective of opening up governmental decision making to public view and participation. The presumption of openness means the existence of a legally enforceable right for members of the public to be present at the meetings of covered governmental bodies if no provision expressly concerning the particular kind of meeting exists.|
|Linders, D.; Wilson, S.C. (2011). “What is Open Government? One Year after the Directive.” In The Proceedings of the 12th Conference on Digital Government Research (dg.o.2011), 262-271.||In response to President Obama’s Open Government Directive, federal agencies developed plans to instill the principles of transparency, collaboration, and participation into their engagement with the public. Against the question, “what is open government?,” the authors reviewed the prevailing literature and the agency plans to identify a set of discrete lenses and objectives that align with the Directive’s principles. The lenses and objectives are then assessed for their policy implications, intended outcomes, and implementation challenges. This analysis is synthesized into a framework that will support future fieldwork to identify and construct best-practice tools and guidance that help agencies go beyond baseline compliance and apply the Directive as a tool for mission success. They conclude with a discussion on the factors and conditions for the sustainment of the Open Government movement.|
|Harrison, Teresa M., Santiago Guerrero, G. Brian Burke, Meghan Cook, Anthony Cresswell, Natalie Helbig, Jana Hrdinová, and Theresa Pardo. “Open government and e-government: Democratic challenges from a public value perspective.” Information Polity 17, no. 2 (2012): 83-97.||Considers from a critical perspective that open government is not a result in itself, but should be assessed in terms of the public value that is created by each initiative.|
|“Special Issue of Information Polity on Open Government.” Information Polity 17, no. 2, (2012.)||The idea of open government has captured world-wide interest, partly because of the open government initiative launched by the Obama administration, but also because of the development of new technologies that increase the possibilities of accessing information and collaborating in innovative ways to make better use of available information. There is an important difference between the traditional approach to open government and the current, renewed one. While the traditional approach emphasized transparency, current approaches also involve key elements of participation, collaboration and innovation. Governments are seeking to deliver information in more useful ways to the citizen, and also opening new channels for participation and new approaches to collaboration.|
|Robinson, Harlan Yu David G. “The New Ambiguity of Open Government.” UCLA Law Review Disc. 59 (2012): 178-230.||“Open government” used to refer to politically sensitive disclosures of government information, 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 government data released openly through technology. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, the term “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more publicly accountable), or instead might refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, even if they have nothing to do with public accountability. Today, a government can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of website—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 review proposes a way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: The authors 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 new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements alone will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.|
|Noveck, Beth. “What’s in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov.” Huffington Post, April 7, 2011.||Open government is an innovative strategy for changing how government works. By using network technology to connect the public to government and to one another informed by open data, an open government asks for help with solving problems. The end result is more effective institutions and more robust democracy.|
|Heller, Nathaniel. “A Working Definition of Open Government.” Global Integrity. May 23, 2012.||Open government combines three elements:
|“Declaration of Open Government.” Australian Government. July 16, 2010.||The Australian Government now declares that, in order to promote greater participation in Australia’s democracy, it is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement, built on better access to and use of government held information, and sustained by the innovative use of technology.Citizen collaboration in policy and service delivery design will enhance the processes of government and improve the outcomes sought. Collaboration with citizens is to be enabled and encouraged. Agencies are to reduce barriers to online engagement, undertake social networking, crowd sourcing and online collaboration projects and support online engagement by employees, in accordance with the Australian Public Service Commission The Australian Government’s support for openness and transparency in Government has three key principles:
|“Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government.” Government of Canada. March 18, 2011.||Open Government is about greater openness and accountability, strengthening democracy and driving innovation and economic opportunities for all Canadians.Canada’s commitment to open government is part of the federal government’s efforts to foster greater openness and accountability, to provide Canadians with more opportunities to learn about and participate in government, to drive innovation and economic opportunities for all Canadians and, at the same time, create a more cost effective, efficient and responsive government.Canada’s Open Government efforts are defined by three key elements: open information, open data and open dialogue.|
|Davies, Alysia and DaraLithwick. “Government 2.0 and Access to Information: Recent Developments in Proactive Disclosure and Open Data in Canada.” Library of Parliament of Canada. April 15, 2010.||With the advent of new technologies that make document distribution on the Internet cheaper and easier than ever before, many governments are shifting to an “e-democracy” model of access to information. Governments are moving many of their documents and data online, where members of the public can search for material themselves. This process is often referred to as “proactive disclosure.” It is one component of a larger initiative sometimes called “e-government,” “e-governance,” “e-participation,” or “open government,” whereby citizens are able not only to obtain electronic access to government documents and services, but also to interact with them and give feedback on matters ranging from individual service problems to statistics and policy.|
|“Resolution of Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy Commissioners.” Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. September 1, 2010.||The basic tenets of a sound open government strategy are:
|“Ministerial Declaration on eGovernment” approved unanimously in Malmö, Sweden. November 18, 2009.||The EU Ministers committed to encouraging the reuse of public data by third parties to develop enriched services that maximise the value for the public. New demand-led information products and services enabled by the reuse of public sector information will support the transition of Europe to a knowledge-based economy.|
|“2011 eGovernment Benchmark Pilot on Open Government and Transparency: Measuring the potential of eGovernment to foster Open Government and Transparency in Europe.” Prepared by Capgemini, IDC, Rand Europe, Sogeti and DTi for the European Commision. July 2011.||The implementation of Open (e)Government by the EU builds on three main pillars: Transparency, Participation and Collaboration. Whereby implementation is enabled by the pervasiveness of ICTs and the innovative Collaboration processes pioneered by social networks.|
|“Modernising Government: The Way Forward.” Paris: OECD, 2005.||The OECD defines open government as ‘the transparency of government actions, the accessibility of government services and information and the responsiveness of government to new ideas, demands and needs.’Three characteristics appear to be most relevant when describing a government as open, namely:
Each of these dimensions of “openness” has practical implications from the point of view of those outside government looking in. From the public’s perspective, an open government is one where citizens, businesses and civil society organisations (CSOs) have:
|“Building an open and innovative Government for better policies and service delivery.” Paris: OECD, 8-9 June 2010||The more recent OECD definition focuses more on practice and impacts rather than procedures and rules, offering a substantial starting point: Open Government means a Government open to the contribution of Citizens and society to co-create public value and engaged to respect three main principles:
|Brown, Gordon. “Speech on Smarter Government.” Address by the U.K. Prime Minister. December 7, 2009.||An information revolution is giving people new powers over the choices they make for themselves and their families. People have rising expectations and aspirations. They want a bigger say and greater accountability in the public sector with services that are universal but also personal and of the highest quality. They expect to be able to get the information they need when they want it. They expect online access to public services. Smarter government includes public data put online to encourage feedback and dialogue between government and citizens.|
|“Letter to Cabinet Ministers on transparency and open data. Policy: Improving the transparency and accountability of government and its services.” U.K. Cabinet Office. May 2, 2013.||Transparency is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. recognising that transparency and open data can be powerful tools to help reform public services, foster innovation and empower citizens. Also, transparency can be a significant driver of economic activity, with open data increasingly enabling the creation of valuable new services and applications. This revolution in government transparency will make it easier than ever before for the public to make informed choices between providers and hold government to account for the performance of key public services.|
|“Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government.” U.K. Treasury. December 2009.||Smarter government involves delivering better public services for lower cost; improving public service outcomes; achieving fiscal consolidation to help the economy grow. Central actions include: strengthening the role of citizens and civic society; recasting the relationship between the centre and the frontline; and saving money through sharper delivery. Public data are government-held non-personal data that are collected or generated in the course of public service delivery. The public data principles state that: public data will be published in reusable, machine readable form; public data will be available and easy to find through a single easy to use online access point; public data will be published using open standards and following the recommendations of the W3 Consortium; any ‘raw’ dataset will be represented in linked data form; more public data will be released under an open license which enables free reuse, including commercial reuse; data underlying the Government’s own websites will be published in reusable form for others to use; personal, classified, commercially sensitive and third-party data will continue to be protected.|
|“UN Guidelines on Open Government Data for Citizen Engagement.” UN Public Administration Programme. May 17, 2013.||The two main elements of open government data can be defined as follows:
PSBs produce, maintain and update vast quantities of documents and datasets. Some examples of data include national statistics, budgetary information, parliamentary records, geographical data, laws, and data about education and transport.
Not all PSI is OGD. In fact OGD is the intersection of PSI and open data. Data is ‘open’, no matter the source, only if it can be accessed, reused, and redistributed by anyone, for any purposes, including commercial reuse, free of charge and without any restrictions.
|”Transparency and Open Government: Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies.” U.S. Government, January 21, 2009.||Open government is defined as a system of transparency (information disclosure; solicit public feedback), public participation (increased opportunities to participate in policymaking), and collaboration (the use of innovative tools, methods, and systems to facilitate cooperation among Government departments, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector).|
|Orszag, Peter S. “Open Government Directive (USA).” U.S. Government, December 8, 2009.||In the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, issued on January 21, 2009, the President instructed the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue an Open Government Directive. Responding to that instruction, this memorandum is intended to direct executive departments and agencies to take specific actions to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration. The directive focuses on:
|“Open Government Partnership Declaration.” Open Government Partnership. September 1, 2011.||Open government involves: Increasing the availability of information about governmental activities; Supporting civic participation; Implementing the highest standards of professional integrity through: Increasing access to new technologies for openness and accountability, information sharing, public participation, and collaboration.|
|“2013 Policy Forum on Global Development.” Engineers Without Borders Canada. January 14, 2013.||Defines “open government” as “one that works with its citizens, civil society, and other actors to collaboratively solve important problems faced by their society. Open government is built on three intertwined foundational principles:
Open government is not the same as open data. The provision of open data alone does not make a government open. For instance, governments can provide open data on politically neutral topics but remain opaque on others, or lack mechanisms for citizens to hold them accountable.
Similarly, governments can pursue the foundational principles of open government without utilizing the new technologies that they are often associated with, such as the internet. However, technologies are important tools that can support governments in their pursuit of openness to foster a space that enables lively debate founded on mutual respect, and our moderators and facilitators will strive to help maintain this atmosphere.
|“Open Knowledge Definition.” Open Knowledge Foundation. January 1, 2006.||A piece of data or content is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike.A work is open if its manner of distribution satisfies the following conditions: Access, Redistribution, Reuse, Absence of Technological Restriction, Attribution, Integrity, No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups, No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor, Distribution of License, License Must Not Be Specific to a Package, License Must Not Restrict the Distribution of Other Works.|
|“Project: Open Government Data.” World Wide Web Foundation. Accessed on July 31, 2013.||The Web Foundation believes that the development of Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives in low and middle-income countries would have a critical impact on their future development. Such initiatives should focus on releasing information that matters to improve peoples’ lives and the society at large, and ideally leading to achieve the Open Government paradigm shift in those countries. The Web Foundation proposes to demonstrate and accelerate global adoption of Open Data in the citizen-government context by a) conducting actions at a local scale that can be replicated globally, such as building locally sustainable OGD ecosystems in specific countries and b) actions at a global scale for supporting countries to achieve the promises and benefits of Open Data.Expected Outcomes:
|“Eight Principles of Open Government Data.” OpenGovData.org. December 8, 2007. OpenGovData.org||Government data shall be considered open if the data are made public in a way that complies with the principles below: