How Far Can Open Government Really Go Under an Obama White House?

If you haven't already read the news about the Justice Department snooping on the Associated Press' newsroom in an attempt to ferret out government leakers, prepare to be nauseated.

This comes just days after the White House trumpeted a widely-applauded open data policy that seeks to proactively liberate vast amounts of data in an attempt to shine light on the inner workings of the very same government.

Go and try to reconcile those two things: a steady march towards clamping down on national security information with a liberal open data policy. I certainly can't. And I'm beginning to wonder if we're starting to see the limits of open government under the Obama White House.

This administration's track record on what can be argued are the easier bits of open government is more than laudable. An initial Open Government Directive has been augmented with the new open data policy, and we've witnessed the launch of an international Open Government Partnership, which began as a White House brainchild. But during that very same period we've witnessed the administration getting worse on the politically harder bits: freedom of information response times have deteriorated, reporters are being chased down to divulge their sources, and now entire newsrooms are apparently being targeted in broad, scarily police state-style monitoring. What the heck is going on here?

Here at Global Integrity, we've warned repeatedly about the risks of governments trying to be half-pregnant on open government. It just doesn't work. Some think that open data itself is equivalent to open government while others — perhaps including the current US administration — seem content to make progress on the technocratic pieces while allowing core pillars of the open government agenda to wither, such as access to information and civil liberties. While we know that governments don't transform themselves overnight, we do worry deeply when we witness deliberate backsliding by governments on pieces of the open government agenda, whether South Africa's Secrecy Bill, Hungary's recent watering down of its freedom of information legislation, or American schizophrenia around the idea that open government can take root in a climate of barely-legal government surveillance and intrusion.

Open government advocates have been asking questions about whether countries such as South Africa and the Philippines, both of which sit on the Open Government Partnership steering committee, are truly committed to the open government agenda in light of recent backsliding. Unfortunately, it's now time to ask the same of the United States.

— Nathaniel Heller

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