Open Government is a laudable goal, to be sure. We live at a time of declining public trust in institutions. Chief among them, is declining public trust in government. We also live at a time of increasing political apathy and widespread misinformation flows. Open and transparent government, studies have shown, both help to encourage political engagement, generally speaking, and also could increase trust in government processes. Open data provided through official government channels may also provide an answer to misinformation. If government can be a trusted source of, for example, taxpayer-funded scientific information, it could serve as an information hub for people in search of facts.
But there are likely limits to how open governments can be. We know that information is already being weaponized by malicious actors and used to influence elections. What happens if open government efforts are spoofed or hacked in order to sew further distrust? Additionally, the amount of human and technological resources needed to maintain a completely open by default infrastructure may be impractical, and would certainly be expensive to maintain. Finally, government information is often information about citizens. Are we comfortable with that kind of information being open by default? What happens when that open information then gets into the hands of people who want to use it maliciously?
In a practical sense, moving towards greater openness, will require a rethinking of current processes. Existing government hierarchies may need to change or be broken down in order to accommodate working in the open. Hierarchies are often maintained through information control. These would have to loosen in order to enable a freer flow of information between governments and the public. Government relations and PR would have to shift a focus between gatekeeping communication, and enabling the flow of information between stakeholders. This requires a fundamental shift in everything from training, to information clearance levels, to procedures.
Should government be more open? Yes. Should government be open to the fullest extent possible permitted by technology? Probably not ever, and certainly not at this time. Should procedures change to accommodate a greater transparency? Absolutely. Governments who work with the people as allies, sharing as openly as possible and being transparent about what and why they can’t share will have a unique advantage in the new information age. The only question is whether most governments are nimble enough to move in this direction.