The impact of open government: Assessing the evidence

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) sits with Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Philippines' President Benigno Aquino and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (L-R) as he hosts the Open Government Partnership event in New York

Open government has in recent years emerged as an area of intense activity and fervent hope for some of our largest societal aspirations.  This paper asks the question, does open government work? That is to say, do open government interventions expand public knowledge of governmental processes, encourage participation and inclusion, improve public services, save public money, or help achieve other widely accepted goals of government?

Authors Vanessa Williamson and Norman Eisen review the empirical and theoretical literature examining the international impact of open government, and offer recommendations for policymakers and an agenda for further research on the subject.  They employ a broad definition of open government, focusing on three governance processes that allow the perspectives, needs, and rights of citizens—including the most marginalized—to be addressed: (1) initiatives to increase transparency; (2) interventions intended to expand public engagement and participation; and (3) efforts to improve responsiveness and accountability.  In assessing whether open government “works” or is “effective,” Williamson and Eisen look for those interventions that the evidence shows cause critical improvement in people’s lives (e.g. by improving health care, reducing corruption, increasing voting rates, and so on).

Based on an analysis of hundreds of reports, articles, and peer-reviewed academic studies discussing the effectiveness of particular programs, the authors identify the six features of open government programs that give these reforms the highest likelihood of success. They express these six features as a series of questions that proponents of such programs should pose:

  1. Have the proponents identified the specific principals (e.g. segments of the public, civil society, media, and other stakeholders) intended to benefit from the new open government initiative?
  2. Is the information revealed by the initiative important to the principals?
  3. Is the information accessible and publicized to the principals?
  4. Can the principals respond meaningfully as individuals?
  5. Are governmental agents supportive of the reform effort?
  6. Can the principals coordinate to change their governmental agents’ incentives?

Where open government initiatives have been effective, argue Williamson and Eisen, the answer to each of the first three questions is yes.  In addition, the answer to at least one of questions 4-6 is also yes.  That is, principals could respond meaningfully on their own, or they could do so with the support of government officials, or they could do so through a coordinated effort by the principals to change the behavior of their representatives in government.

Williamson and Eisen close by proposing an agenda for future research in this area, which they contend should include the expanded use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and other rigorous research methods to fill crucial gaps that remain in the literature. “Ideally,” they conclude, “open government becomes the status quo. In the coming years, we look forward to more research that examines not only where open government initiatives show early success, but where open government becomes institutionalized.”

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