Study on open government in the Netherlands: On how open data both open and close

Government openness and transparency in the form of communicating data can sometimes overshoot the mark. However, if we see sharing data as an act of distribution between government and citizens rather than as an act of communication, it becomes clearer what good governance means. That is Gijs van Maanen’s conclusion in his PhD thesis, that he will defend at Tilburg University on Wednesday, March 8.

In past decades, various governments have undertaken initiatives to be more open and transparent by sharing data. Government information that is shared in an open, transparent, and accessible way is essential to citizens if they want to have a strong position vis-ą-vis the government. For governments themselves, transparency is an important way to gain trust. But to what extent does sharing data contribute to this? Researcher Gijs van Maanen of the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT) studied two initiatives: sharing data on groundwater levels by a water board and making municipal data and documents accessible to the public at large. He focused specifically on the way in which the communication of data changed the relationship between government and citizens.

The waterboard investigated by Van Maanen, for instance, shares data on recent  groundwater levels via its website. Farmers and citizens can see in real time how these levels react to drought, large amounts of precipitation, or the use of groundwater by farmers for their crops. Making the data about groundwater levels publicly accessible has great benefits, according to Van Maanen: it makes something deep under the ground visible and controllable, and it makes it easier to make decisions about the distribution of water over a certain area.

The downside, however, of publicly sharing groundwater data was that groundwater levels were perceived mainly as a potential water problem. It drew the attention away from other issues that the waterboard is struggling with, for instance nature conservation and the quality of the soil. So openness may open minds but it may also close them to other issues, Van Maanen concludes.

Sharing versus distributing data

To improve government transparency, sharing data should perhaps not be understood, as is often the case, as a form of communication, but rather as a form of distribution, Van Maanen argues. By treating it as a distribution issue, it becomes easier to ask questions about the duties of governments when not only the distribution of data is at issue but also whether data and information should be distributed at all to achieve the objectives of open government. There is also room to identify who should receive what from what government authority and why. "’The’ citizen" is not always the most helpful answer to the question of for whom data should be made accessible.

Finally, this approach will help determine whether open data are in fact helpful for citizens. Sometimes, open government would benefit more from answering individual questions than from providing information on the best way to lodge an objection. Understanding openness and transparency as an act of distribution rather than as an act of communication between government and citizens makes it clearer to us what good governance means.

PhD Defense

Gijs van Maanen will defend his PhD thesis, entitled ’From communicating to distributing: Studying open government and open data in the Netherlands’, on Wednesday, March 8, at 16:30 hrs. in the Tilburg University Auditorium. PhD supervisors: Professor A.C.M. Meuwese, Professor L.E.M. Taylor. The defense can be watched via a livestream: click this link.