FT: “Open government never meant the real-time disclosure of all state activity”

The Financial Times opinion page weighed in on the state of open government in the United States and the United Kingdom today. The gist of the comment is that President Obama’s open data agenda has slightly stalled. A key excerpt, below, focused on potential sources of delay.

Barack Obama, the US president, and David Cameron, the UK premier, took power with a more mundane vision of transparency than that of Julian Assange – that governments should keep as many secrets only as truly necessary. Both were excited by the dry business of putting public data online. But they were right to be: signs that Mr Obama, in particular, has seen his efforts stall are a shame.

WikiLeaks releases highly sensitive diplomatic material. But governments collect reams of less delicate data, from exam results and hospital inspections to maps and weather reports. This can often be reused on the web, creating profitable businesses, helpful advice to citizens or tools that hold leaders to account. Not all such data are useful, just as not all scientific discoveries lead to new drugs. And not all should be published, if they break data protection rules. But more should be than at present.

It would be irresponsible to deny a state’s right to protect its interests, and those of its citizens, by keeping some secrets. Open government never meant the real-time disclosure of all state activity. But the reasons for hiding public information too often stem from fear of embarrassment, force of habit or politicians going cold on previous ideals – not the public interest.

Here Mr Obama began strongly, speedily unveiling schemes to unlock new data. Yet his progress has slowed as departments delay and fudge and the White House’s attention is diverted elsewhere. Mr Cameron has done better, in part by being more focused — and thus picking fewer fights with often recalcitrant civil servants.

The full Financial Times op-ed is online here, behind a registration wall: “Open up, before it becomes too late.”

For a look back at the progress of the Open Government Directive in its first year, click over to the Huffington Post.