The risky politics of open government

“Open” is the newly favoured word at the heart of government, and one that intrinsically connects politics and technology.

Prime minister David Cameron once promised us “the most open and transparent government in the world”, and this week we are seeing both sides of that claim.

London is hosting the Open Government Partnership summit, with world leaders coming together to promote more transparency in public life. From an IT perspective, the focus is on open data – the publication of government datasets for re-use by individuals and companies – which is hoped to generate new innovations and huge economic opportunities.

We’ve also seen the release of new government reports highlighting the benefits of big data, the need for better data science skills in the UK to understand all this open data, and moves towards the creation of a National Information Infrastructure to promote the release of ever-more public information.

On top of all that, this week also saw the UK’s government-backed Open Data Institute taking a world-leading role in exporting its good work to other countries.

There’s nothing anyone can argue with in the intent or actions above.

But in the very same week, 76 organisations jointly wrote a letter to Cameron urging him to end moves to rewrite the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which would make it harder for the public (and, declaring an interest, journalists) to uncover the government data they don’t want us to see.

“We find it difficult to reconcile your ambition that the UK should be the world leader in openness with the government’s proposals to restrict the FOI Act, which is a critical element of the UK’s openness arrangements,” said the letter.

Surely Mr Cameron, if you don’t like the Freedom of Information Act, there’s an easy answer – abolish it, and just make sure everything the government does is published anyway. That’s called being open. Nobody would ever need to submit an FOI request again.

Then there’s the passing of the Royal Charter on press regulation, which introduces statutory regulation of the UK’s free press for the first time in centuries.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it’s also relevant to throw in the ongoing revelations about GCHQ’s involvement in secret internet snooping on UK citizens alongside the US National Security Agency in the continuing leaks sourced from whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Here’s where “open” and technology connect again. Like IT, being open is binary – you’re either open, or you’re not. You can’t be a bit open, like you can’t be a bit pregnant.

Of course, everyone recognises the fact that some things in government need to stay secret – but you can be open about that too, without sharing the secrets themselves.

Openness in government is designed to increase trust in politics and public life. The more open and transparent you are, the argument goes, the more trustworthy you become. I expect most of us would agree with those principles, and experience them on a daily basis with friends and colleagues.

But the other side of that argument is that when you say you are open, and in some areas go to great lengths to prove it – then every time we find out that openness has its limits, trust is destroyed far more quickly.

If someone says they are being open, the impression they least want to give is that they are hiding something. Openness with limits becomes a cloak designed to stop people wondering, “Well, what are they not telling us?”

And that’s the question this government has yet to address. Openness should be a strength of government – but David Cameron risks turning it into a weakness.