Offerman Consulting
spacer Zone

Transparency requires more than open data alone

Author: Adrian Offerman

Open data is often seen as the main answer to political and government transparency. The rhetoric of the open data movement, however, fails to recognise the complexity of transparency. A research group compared the scientific concepts of transparency to the UK government's transparency code for local authorities. It concluded that the code is based on a limited concept of transparency and should be expanded to achieve its aims.

The group's findings were presented at the International Conference for E-Democracy and Open Government 2015 (CeDEM15) held recently at the Danube University Krems in Austria.

Meaning and context

According to the research group, transparency is seen as a tool for rooting out corruption (through accountability) and inefficiency (waste), which, in the end, leads to a more effective and trustworthy government. This reasoning is not necessarily true, however. Snowden's disclosures, for example, have provided more insight into global surveillance and at the same time led to a decreased trust in governments.

The research group has identified 'openness' and 'following the rules' as the two main themes of transparency in modern government. For open data to drive transparency, efficiency and accountability, it has to be transformed into information that is communicated to society, during which process the data is interpreted, getting a meaning and a context for a specific audience.

Simple and passive

The transparency code issued last year by the UK Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) requires over 400 of the larger UK local authorities to publish a minimum set of open data for transparency reasons. Comparing the code to scientific concepts of transparency, the researchers conclude that the model embodied by the code is simple and passive ("publish and hope for the best").

They suggest an active and more complex approach: governments should push, promote and market the data, and provide tools to make it more relevant. A potential danger of such an audience-driven approach, however, is that governments will use this role to hide information and mislead audiences.

The overall conclusion may very well be that openness is something other than transparency, and that a data-centric (driven by the open movement) as well as a transparency-centric approach (driven by freedom of information) should be chosen.