Harlan Yu of the Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), and David G. Robinson of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School have published The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”, UCLA Law Review Discourse, 59, 178-208 (2012). Here is a summary:
The popular term “open government data” is, therefore, deeply ambiguous—it might mean either of two very different things. If “open government” is a phrase that modifies the noun “data,” we are talking about politically important disclosures, whether or not they are delivered by computer. On the other hand, if the words “open” and “government” are separate adjectives modifying “data,” we are talking about data that is both easily accessed and government related, but that might or might not be politically important. (Or the term might have a third meaning, as a shorthand reference to the intersection of data meeting both definitions: governmental data that is both politically sensitive and computer provided.)
In this Essay, we acknowledge that this ambiguity may sometimes be beneficial, but ultimately argue that the term “open government” has become too vague to be a useful label in most policy conversations. Open data can be a powerful force for public accountability—it can make existing information easier to analyze, process, and combine than ever before, allowing a new level of public scrutiny. At the same time, open data technologies can also enhance service delivery in any regime, even an opaque one. When policymakers and the public use the same term for both of these important benefits, governments may be able to take credit for increased public accountability simply by delivering open data technology.
In place of this confusion, we offer a stylized framework to consider each of these two questions independently. One dimension describes technology: How is the disclosed data structured, organized, and published? We describe the data itself as being on a spectrum between adaptable and inert, depending on how easy or hard it is for new actors to make innovative uses of the data. The other dimension describes the actual or anticipated benefits of the data disclosure; the goals of disclosure run on a spectrum between service delivery and public accountability. This is admittedly a simplification of reality: In practice, many disclosures serve both objectives. However, it is common for one of the two motives to predominate over the other, and we believe this provides a useful starting point for thinking about the competing goals of disclosure.
The article discusses at length open legislative data.