Open government data complements FOI laws, but it cannot replace them

In March 2018, three public policy scholars posted a provocative question: could the open government movement shut the door on freedom of information? At the time, I let it flow without refuting it from the Sunlight Foundation’s platform, but it’s worth revisiting, in light of the United States enacting a historic open government law this winter.

On the one hand, it’s reasonable to highlight that there are many different tribes within the big tent of open government, along with openwashing from many governments. The example of ” a false sense of transparency” in Kenya after it put up an open data website is a good example

Beyond failing to cite and acknowledge existing scholarship on the ambiguity of open data and accountability or years of debate around the issue, however, there was a fundamental flaw in the premise of this article in the Conversation: that the global open government movement is somehow separate or distinct from freedom of information laws and the advocates who push for them.

There is a real problem with continuing silos between advocates for privacy, security, identity, press freedom, and government transparency, but what the authors suggested just isn’t born out by the networks that have grown around the world — in part as a result of the convening power of the Open Government Partnership.

All that said, I do agree with the authors’ conclusions: open data is not a substitute for a freedom of information law. Rather, it is a complement.

As I told the Register, opening data won’t remove the need for an option to file suit under freedom of information laws.  There will always be people who try to prevent the public and press from learning of fraud, waste, incompetence or abuse of power.

But instead of people being stymied trying access information they’ve already paid for, they’ll be able to find it through a search engine or apply it through an infomediary that reuses that data. Over time, opening data will generally reduce FOIA demand and save taxpayer money, as demonstrated by research that showed cities save time on recods requests.


How the United States implements this law will put that to the test, particularly given the Trump administration’s the shadowed record on good government and missing commitments to open government, but cities, states and other nations should take heed. 

If Germany’s Ministry of the Interior is concerned that more Germans are exercising their right to ask their government for information, the solution is not to restrict them but to invest in more human and technical capacity to process and reduce demand by  , publishing open data that’s in demand.

While the Obama administration deserved credit for publishing unprecedented releases of data online that have had a measurable impact on many sectors of society, its failure to more “explicitly connect Freedom of Information Act request demands to prioritizing proactive disclosure undermined the administration’s goals for the impact of open data releases on transparency and accountability,” as I told Wired Italia in 2016:

“Similarly, failures to proactively disclose the use of drones or of mass surveillance of telephony and online systems has had a negative impact upon public trust writ large and specifically in the efficacy or meaning of various open government initiatives. …At the same time, agencies have stonewalled the press asking tough questions, limited access to government scientists and engaged in undisclosed surveillance, including of the press itself, and unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers.”

As the United States moves forward with implementing the OPEN Government Data Act , the mixed record of the Obama administration on open government is a roadmap for Congress and the U.S. government to follow.

As Congress considers reforms that are responsive to the pressing civic needs of the nation, it’s critical that the public’s right to know and access public knowledge funded with public money under sunshine laws is improved by public interest, not diminished as a result of it.

Figure Credit: Sunlight Foundation

One thought on “Open government data complements FOI laws, but it cannot replace them

  1. Pingback: The state of open government (data) remains divided, at risk, and underfunded | E Pluribus Unum

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