PhD Defense G. van Maanen MA
From communicating to distributing: studying open government and open data in the Netherlands
- Location: Cobbenhagen building, Aula
- Supervisors: Prof. A.C.M. Meuwese, Prof. L.E.M. Taylor
In the last couple of decades, calls for governmental openness and transparency motivated the establishment of international and national initiatives all focused on the strengthening of the open and transparent character of governments. Open data policies are important elements of these initiatives and aim to make (governmental) data more accessible to the public via the publication of datasets on data portals and dashboards.
The question asked in this thesis is: how and in what way open data transform the relationships between governments and citizens?
This is an important question to ask because, as Van Eechoud once argued, openness is not only a tool to be used by citizens to control their governments, but also one used by governments to control their citizens.
Often, governmental open data are understood as acts of communication: governments communicate data to, for instance, citizens in the hope that citizens will transform the data into something valuable. Based on an empirical analysis of open data in the domains of water governance, and local government, Van Maanen argues that it is more helpful to see open data as acts of distribution.
Understanding the production and publication of open data by governments as acts of distribution has several advantages. First and foremost, framing open government and open data in distributive terms helps thinking about the duties governments have to society that go beyond taking care of the quality of the messages, information, and data communicated to the public. How, for instance, should governments relate themselves to commercial actors that are sometimes more interested in the data than the average citizen? Second, a notion of distributive justice also forces one to reflect on who should receive something from which government and in what way. How to ensure, for instance, that the inhabitants of a municipality are also capable of making use of the data distributed to them? Third, notions of distributive justice also make one reconsider and reprioritize what kind of things should be distributed by governments. To what extent are data and information always the best goods to distribute when one wants to improve the democratic character of the government? Fourth, notions of distributive justice destabilize the (implicit) conflation of economic and political values present in open government and open data initiatives. A communication-transcending norm like distributive justice allows one to be critical of such limited or platform-like understandings of governmental duties.
In sum, understanding open government and open data into distributive terms destabilizes the sender-recipient: government-citizen relationship presupposed in open government policy by explicating moral-political questions that go beyond the quality of the ‘bridges’ to be built by openness. This, in the end, results in a repolitization of the presuppositions and aims of open government policy, and especially of the idea that openness is a Swiss army knife to be of value for everything and everyone.