A Brief History of Open Government

history of open government

Open government is based upon the idea that governments function better when citizens play an active role in creating policy. Crucial to this type of engagement is the availability and accessibility of government data. When citizens have access to what’s happening in their town, state, or country, they can hold elected officials accountable for their actions — an essential principle of democracy. But increased transparency is not the entire solution for an effort to gain widespread input from citizens. True dedication to an open government is demonstrated in a country’s effort to engage citizens when they appear to lose interest or grow weary of participating.

Several initiatives during the Obama Administration proved fruitful in furthering the goal of an open government. On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government through transparency, public participation, and collaboration.

Let’s take glance at the history of open government to see how those objectives have been strengthened over recent years:

Increased transparency:

  • The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 gave US citizens the right to access federal information and in recent history, Obama made information about government operations even more accessible through an executive order that made open and machine-readable data the new default for government information.
  • The future of transparency: With the rise of the internet, public data can be accessed easier than ever before. The question now becomes: how committed are governments to using this powerful tool to empower citizens, and how will they work to close the digital divide in order to hear voices from all citizens?

Increased Participation:

  • One component of open government is voting and the 19th and 15th Amendments of 1920 and 1965 increased the amount of US citizens eligible to participate in this process. 
  • The future of participation: Eligibility doesn’t necessarily correlate with engagement.  How will governments encourage participation from all citizens?

Increased collaboration:

  • Collaborative tools like IdeaScale have helped to crowdsource innovation in government in recent years. Using crowdsourcing, Innovate Your State ran a challenge to come up with ideas to innovate California. The winning idea became a funded initiative (Prop 54) that was put on the November 2016 ballot and passed. This process utilized open innovation practices to arrive at the best idea, and the chosen initiative was one that furthered the goals of open government by prohibiting the legislature from passing any bill until it has been published for 72 hours prior to the vote.
  • The future of collaboration: Moving forward, why shouldn’t all ballot initiatives be crowdsourced from citizens?

Open government has a long journey ahead to increase transparency, participation, and collaboration. Widespread use of modern tools like the internet and crowdsourcing have made these three objectives a greater reality but that doesn’t mean that governments will jump at the opportunity to engage citizens. It is up to supporters of open government to push these agenda items to reach an ideal of a truly participatory government that responds to and thrives upon the feedback of the people it serves.

Want a more in depth look at the history of open government? Download our infographic here


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