Three Strategies for Achieving Open Government

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In a recent article for OSBR, Jennifer Bell offers a useful summary of 3 different sets of proposals that would easy the implementation of open and transparent government by making public data easily accessible to citizens.


Jennifer Bell:

1. A new information architecture separating data layers

“The UK’s Power of Information Task Force has proposed an application framework for implementing government transparency. In a thoughtful blog post this past June, Richard Allen proposed the following re-visioning of the way that the data in a government website is used. Instead of a closed model where the presentation, analysis, and data layers are locked together, Allen presents a model with access layers between data, analysis, and presentation, and an interaction layer laid over top. These access layers give third parties the flexibility to hook into the data directly to provide their own analysis or to use information from the government’s analysis layer to provide their own presentation interfaces. Finally, the interaction layer allows people to discuss the information and provide feedback.”

2. Intra-government channels should be exposed to the public

“David Robinson, of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, takes the concept of fitting access layers into existing government IT architectures one step further. In his paper Government Data and the Invisible Hand, Robinson argues that intra-departmental reporting channels should be exposed to the public, who can provide external validation to complement internal checks and balances.

If this model were followed by the Canadian federal government, data provided to the Auditor General for fulfilling its mandate of “holding the federal government accountable for its stewardship of public funds” would be opened up to access by external agencies. Like the Peer-to-Patent model, the Auditor General would begin to benefit from scrutiny of the data by external bodies. Systems may well evolve that relieve the burden of oversight from the staff of the Auditor General altogether, allowing them the leisure to pay attention only when issues are reported. With a system built on openness, the public may also start to trust that the government in Canada is in fact well run, instead of being required to take it on faith.”

3. OMBWatch’s Incentive Reform Recommendations for Open Government

“The rewards of a civil service career are asymmetrical and civil servants often feel that they live in a fish bowl. This fish bowl is made of a particular type of filtered glass: one where only the bad light gets through. Overwhelmingly, the disclosed information that gets publicized by the media is the negative, career-destroying kind. Information that points to success and improvement are rarely publicly celebrated. This is something that has to change.

Recognizing that the incentives against transparency outweigh the incentives for, OMBWatch has recommendations for institutionalizing open.

These include:

  • having the government leader instruct agencies to request sufficient resources in funding, personnel, and technical capacity, to implement the vision of a more transparent government
  • making transparency part of federal job evaluations where it is part of the job description
  • implement directives protecting whistle-blowers who disclose waste, fraud, or abuse within an agency
  • creating a system of transparency scorecards for rating agencies
  • giving out transparency awards to celebrate achievements and best practices

Beyond these recommendations, external bodies that use government information should, as much as possible, build systems that create heroes rather than scapegoats. Individuals who find ways to save money, increase efficiency, or deliver a valuable service in an innovative way should be publicly rewarded, either through external financial compensation or public recognition.” (

Jennifer Bell is with the Canadian Visible Government project.