Defining Open Government

What is open government? Aside from hearing the phrase tossed around with the likes of “e-government,” “e-democracy,” “participatory democracy,” and some tangential descriptors like transparency and accountability, the average citizen has no idea what open government is. Even those at the heart of the open government movement end up offering pretty conflicting and hazy definitions–I’ll do my part as well.

First, governments should not be measured in binary as “open” or “closed,” but along a spectrum of openness. This spectrum of openness should be defined primarily by how well information and participation is allowed to flow between citizens and their governments. At the spectrum’s most closed end would be a totalitarian state that exchanges no information on its governance with its citizens and allows no citizen participation in its decision-making (North Korea appears to be angling toward this end of the spectrum). At the spectrum’s most open end would be a government in which information and values flow seamlessly across governmental and non-governmental actors to produce governance that is more transparent, collaborative, participatory, and adaptable.

The level of openness and information exchange made possible for governments with large populations has experienced a step-level increase following the rise of the Internet, social media, and big data analytics. Still, the concept of open government is catching up to the previously gradual but longstanding movement toward a more open society. After all, it is open government, open markets, open societies in which ideas, capital and labor are able to be most productively employed.

In terms of evaluating the openness of a state, the below four criteria may be a useful starting point:

  • Transparency: The quantity, velocity, accessibility and usability of information through which governments share their observations, decision-making and performance.
  • Participation: The degree to which citizens’ input is incorporated democratically into policymaking and public administration.
  • Collaboration: The degree to which governments form extra-, inter- and intra-governmental partnerships across institutional boundaries, collaborating with the private sector, civil society, the non-profit sector, other governments and the internal divisions of a government’s subsidiary institutions.
  • Adaptability: The degree to which a government, its laws and its policies are open to being continually reformed on the path towards more effective and legitimate governance.


Kevin can be found on Twitter as @kevinmhansen.

Note: This post was initially authored for the blog Crowd Law and can also be found here.