7 Basic Principles For Open Government

The steps necessary to making government more transparent are often not that expensive or cumbersome. What is needed more than anything is a change of mindset among government officials.

Several civic organizations including Citizens Union, Common Cause New York, League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group , and Reinvent Albany, have released a report that highlights how to make the operation of government in New York State more open and transparent.

The full report which you can read here also puts forth seven basic principles for using technology to open up government, that can serve as a useful guide for other municipalities. Simple steps like putting documents online in a searchable format can go a long way in promoting open government.

1. Government information is public information. Information subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law is public information, except for privacy, security and contractual concerns.

2. Public digital information should be put online in a searchable, usable, common format, and kept updated.

3. State policymakers should use Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to guide what information goes online first. The universe of digital records is huge. New York State government gets twenty thousand or more FOIL requests a year. The most FOILed (non-personal) records should be posted online in usable formats.

4. The State should seek ways to use technology to keep the public informed and engaged. Information Technology is abundant and cheap. Most transparency measures involve a change in mindset, not great expense.

5. Online digital information should be searchable, downloadable, and usable by the public. Government documents should be online in common, usable formats like TXT and CSV. Government should not hide information in plain sight — scanned paper copies of documents, saved as image files in PDF format are unsearchable from the web or within the document. They are effectively inaccessible to the public.

6. Government should welcome and share public feedback
Government websites should give the public many opportunities to comment on government decisions before they are made. Those comments and responses should be shared.

7. The state should use online maps to show the public what government is doing.
A picture is worth a thousand words — a map is worth ten thousand. A government serious about transparency will post information online as interactive maps as the federal government did with Recovery.org, including spending, tax breaks, capital projects, member items, economic development projects, etc.


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Curt Klun

Every time I hear about this issue, I think of the very insightful and humorous discussion in the first episode of the 1980s British series, “Yes Minister,” which is titled, “Open Government.”

“Open Government is a contradiction in terms. You can be open — or you can have government.” — Sir Arnold

Mark Forman

Interesting comment Curt. I too always hear about open government from people who want to put the people’s data online, most of which is publicly and more timely available now. But, I want to see the openness on government operations, and few inside government seem to want to do that without having it filtered through lawyers and public affairs. So, most open government plans turn into just another public affairs website, meant to put the agency in a good light. The only success trusted site I know is recovery.gov.

Curt Klun

It is a conundrum. Information is necessary for self-governing, but at the same time there is need for confidential advice, negotiation, and activity, which are all countered by “What did he know and when did he know it” inquiries as well as WikiLeaks. I’d also add that the bi-products and process of governance is ugly, lethargic, inefficient, nauseating at times, but we have the best on the planet.

I think folks would enjoy and find it insightful to watch the “Yes Minister” episode that I referred to. I found it on line: Open Government. The specific discussion can be found between times 16:39 and 18:32, but the whole episode is worthwhile for further insights. Plus, it might get you hooked on the series. I own the whole “Yes Minister” and its follow-on “Yes Prime Minister.” It looks like the writers are returning with new episodes soon.