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Three Dimensions of Open Government

A recent Twitter exchange that I saw got me thinking about the different things people mean by “open government”.

John Moore retweeted:

@canadiancynic: So, @TonyClementCPC, how’s that whole “#opengov” thing working out for you? Uh oh … www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/harper-conservatives-win-award-for-most-secretive-government/article2417147/

Tony Clement replied:

@JohnFMoore 272,000 data sets now online; more usable formats; science research online, etc #opengov http://www.data.ca. Thx.

It seemed clear to me that for Tony Clement, “open government” = “open data”. For Canadiancynic (and possibly John Moore), “open government” has more to do with broader transparency.

This dichotomy between “open (government data)” and “(open government) data” is also picked up in a paperby Princeton scholars David Robinson and Harlan Yu on the ambiguity of the term “open government”. Some, they say, see it as centering on the politics of accountability and others as centering on the technologies of open data – on “government as a platform”.

Personally, I think both views don’t do justice to the possibilities. For conversations sake, I offer the Venn diagram below, showing three dimensions of open government. There may very well be more.

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Corey McCarren

So in order for government to be open, according to your diagram, it must meet three criteria: Open services, open decisions, and open data?

Andrew Krzmarzick

You know – it might not be that Open Government stands at the confluence of those circles…but as an all-encompassing circle. Thoughts?

David Tallan

I’m throwing it out for discussion. I guess my feeling is that each of the circles is just part of the picture, that the meaning of open government includes them all. There may be others. I may have got the wrong three. I could probably word them better (I was torn between “open democracy” and “open decisions”, for example.)

You might also convey that as Andrew has suggested, an all-encompassing circle that includes all three. Instead of an AND operation, you get an OR operation. Doing any of the above counts as “open government”. There are three reasons why I didn’t do that:

  1. I’m not sure that Tony Clement’s answer above was fully satisfying, that one can say “Look, we are releasing open data. We are an open government.” I’m more comfortable with something that allows me to respond “Sure, that’s a significant element of being an open government. But look at these other things. You may want to do something there before you make that claim. Otherwise, people may take issue.”
  2. If not “open government”, what are you going to put into the centre of the diagram?
  3. This is early, unfinished thinking on the subject that I opened for contributions before it was fully baked and I got too attached. I thought that the simple, linear definitions I was reading weren’t multifaceted enough and was amused that what I was thinking seemed to work nicely as a Venn diagram.
Corey McCarren

I think it works well in the center, though. It’s definitely a concept worth pursuing. I like it because it makes the open government appear to be a goal, rather than just an informational diagram. I believe it’s correct either way depending on your perspective.

Kevin Lanahan

Baby steps, baby steps. Open data and open services are the low-hanging fruit here. I think most people can understand the idea that data is essentially neutral and can be shared. Services are there for the public, so make them easily available. Open decisions? That will take some time.

Brian Dowling

Are we by chance assuming that the impetus for these open efforts will only come from within government institutions – we will give the public as much open democracy as we (we = government types) think that they can handle?

Anna Abbey

I think the Venn diagram is a great way of explaining the interplay between the various facets that would ideally make up “Open Government.” Agencies have begun using open government as a short hand term for making data sets available while either ignoring public engagement and transparency in decision making or working on those issues in a disconnected way from the vision of open government. Combining efforts and making sure we hit each mark would improve our ability to create the changes we seek.

Umoh Emmanuel

The Venn diagram is a great way of defining government to reflect its openness. The changes that I would make to the Venn diagram to properly communicate an Open Government would be the following:

1. In the middle replace the word Open Government with the word Collaboration

2. Replace the word Engagement with the word Data

3. Replace Open Data with Information

4. Change Government Platform to Interest Groups

5. Add Accountability to Transparency

With these changes the new diagram is not only open but democratic. Data is at the center and information is shared.

I have removed the word Open from the diagram, because the outcome of the interaction of the different components of the Venn diagram should be Open government. We also need to approach government collaboratively since we are government.

Neil McEvoy

I agree, there does seem to be pre-occupation with open data in Canada, and that this is entirely what Open Government is about.

I also agree with a broader set of tiers, and define these as Open Source and also Open Innovation, corresponding with your own.

Here’s an article that describe these in practice, hypothetically applied to eProcurement in Canada ( (the MERX portal):


cheers, Neil.

David Tallan

Umoh, thanks for the feedback.

Having drawn your revisions out so I can see the resulting changed diagram, I’m a little confused, though. As you’ve revised it:

– “Data” is in opposition to and shares no common ground with “Information”;

– “Interest groups” are in opposition to and share no common ground with “Open Decisions” (or just “Decisions”, if you remove the “Open”)

That doesn’t make sense to me. Surely interest groups are going to be most interested in decisions, not least, and the opening up of the decision-making process to their participation. And I would have thought data would underlie information, not be completes separate from it.

Perhaps you could explain more?

David Tallan

Wow, I wonder what has sparked all of this renewed interest in this old blog post.

I also like Neil’s other “open” ecosystem: open data, open source and open innovation. I’ll have to think about it more.

It seems to me that the three circles I drew above are more “big picture” and strategic. The three tiers Neil describes below are more “what we deal with” and “tactical/operational”. What’s the lay of the land versus how do we get there.

At first I wondered if there was any sort of “people, processes, technology” to Neil’s three, but it doesn’t seem so. Then I thought maybe it was material (open data), processes/technology applied to the material (open source) and results (open innovation). Now I’m wondering if it might be better to include Agile and go with three circles (Open Source, Open Data, Agile Methodologies) with Open Innovation in the centre intersection.

But as I said, I’ll need to think about it a little more.

Dawn Lautwein

David, I got here from an incorrect link in the daily email from GovLoop, which might explain the renewed interest. But I’m glad that it took me here. I certainly agree that open government is not just open data, and I really like your diagram, as it is.