Open government

This article is about the political doctrine. For the Yes Minister episode, see Open Government (Yes Minister).
Not to be confused with Open-source governance.

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.[1] 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.


In the West, the idea that government should be open to public scrutiny and susceptible to public opinion dates back at least to the time of the Enlightenment, when many philosophes made an attack on absolutist doctrine of state secrecy, a core part of their intellectual project.[2][3] The passage of formal legislative instruments to this end can also be traced to this time with Sweden, for example, (which then included Finland as a Swedish-governed territory) enacting free press legislation as part of its constitution (Freedom of the Press Act, 1766).[4] This approach, and that of the philosophes more broadly, is strongly related to recent historiography on the eighteenth-century public sphere.

Influenced by Enlightenment thought, the revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789), freedom of the press enshrined provisions and requirements for public budgetary accounting and freedom of the press in constitutional articles. In the nineteenth century, attempts by Metternichean statesmen to row back on these measures were vigorously opposed by a number of eminent liberal politicians and writers, Bentham, Mill and Acton prominent among the latter.

Open government is widely seen to be a key hallmark of contemporary democratic practice and is often linked to the passing of freedom of information legislation. Scandinavian countries claim to have adopted the first freedom of information legislation, dating the origins of its modern provisions to the eighteenth century and Finland continuing the presumption of openness after gaining independence in 1917, passing its Act on Publicity of Official Documents in 1951 (superseded by new legislation in 1999).

The United States passed its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966, FOIAs, Access to Information Acts (AIAs) or equivalent laws were passed in Denmark and Norway in 1970, France and The Netherlands in 1978, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in 1982, Hungary in 1992, Ireland and Thailand in 1997, South Korea in 1998, the United Kingdom in 2000, Japan and Mexico in 2002, India and Germany in 2005.[5]


Transparency in government is often credited with generating government accountability.[6]:1346 Transparency often allows citizens of a democracy to control their government, reducing government corruption, bribery and other malfeasance.[6]:1347–50 Some commentators contend that an open, transparent government allows for the dissemination of information, which in turn helps produce greater knowledge and societal progress.[6]:1350

The contemporary doctrine of open government finds its strongest advocates in those non-governmental organisations keen to counter what they see as the inherent tendency of government to lapse, whenever possible, into secrecy. Prominent among these NGOs are bodies like Transparency International or the Open Society Institute. They advocate the implementation of norms of openness and transparency across the globe and argue that such standards are vital to the ongoing prosperity and development of democratic societies.

Advocates of open government often argue that civil society, rather than government legislation, offers the best route to more transparent administration. They point to the role of whistleblowers reporting from inside the government bureaucracy (individuals like Daniel Ellsberg or Paul van Buitenen). They argue that an independent and inquiring press, printed or electronic, is often a stronger guarantor of transparency than legislative checks and balances.[7][8]

Along with an interest in providing more access to information goes a corresponding concern for protecting citizens' privacy so they are not exposed to "adverse consequences, retribution or negative repercussions"[1] from information provided by governments.

A relatively new vision for the implementation of open government is coming from the municipal sector. In a similar fashion to grassroot movements, open government technology expert Tobias SK Cichon postulates that the swarming pressure of small local governments using technology to implement open government solutions will lead to similar adoptions by larger municipalities and eventually state, provincial and federal level changes.

Public and private sector platforms provide an avenue for citizens to engage while offering access to transparent information that citizens have come to expect. Numerous organizations have worked to consolidate resources for citizens to access government (local, state and federal) budget spending, stimulus spending, lobbyist spending, legislative tracking, and more.[9]

Despite the obvious and undeniable benefits that come from increased government transparency, a number of scholars have questioned the moral certitude behind much transparency advocacy, questioning the foundations upon which advocacy rests. They have also highlighted how transparency can support certain neoliberal imperatives.[10]

See also


  1. 1 2 Lathrop, Daniel; Ruma, Laurel, eds. (February 2010). Open Government: Transparency, Collaboration and Participation in Practice. O'Reilly Media. ISBN 978-0-596-80435-0.
  2. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962, trans., Cambridge Massachusetts, 1989)
  3. Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis (1965, trans., Cambridge Massachusetts, 1988)
  4. Lamble, Stephen (February 2002). Freedom of Information, a Finnish clergyman’s gift to democracy. 97. Freedom of Information Review. pp. 2–8.
  5. Alasdair Roberts, Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age (Cambridge, 2006)
  6. 1 2 3 Schauer, Frederick (2011), "Transparency in Three Dimensions" (PDF), University of Illinois Law Review, 2011 (4): 1339–1358, retrieved 2011-10-16
  7. J. Michael, The Politics of Secrecy: Confidential Government and the Public's Right to Know (London, 1990)
  8. A.G. Theoharis, ed., A Culture of Secrecy: the Government Versus the People's Right to Know (Kansas, 1998)
  9. Giordano Koch & Maximilian Rapp: Open Government Platforms in Municipality Areas: Identifying elemental design principles, In: Public Management im Paradigmenwechsel, Trauner Verlag, 2012.
  10. Garsten, C. (2008), Transparency in a New Global Order:Unveiling Organizational Visions, Edward Elger

Further reading

External links

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