Openness by design

The past few decades have seen a proliferation of the use of the word “open” when referring to information systems. Open-source environments are used to build open systems with open access through open interfaces and store the results in open repositories. Yet, when it comes to providing open information in the public sector, the systems still turn out to be disappointingly closed. It is time to shift the paradigm and make government systems open by design.

Freedom of information

Public access to government information is an important component of good government. Almost all countries have encapsulated these principles in their laws.

The first one was established in Sweden in 1766 and was called the “offentlighetsprincipen.” Other well-known examples are the Freedom of Information Acts in the UK and US. Currently, the Netherlands has the “Wet Openbaarheid Bestuur” (Openness in Public Administration Act), which will soon be replaced by the “Wet Open Overheid” (Open Government Act).

The past few decades have seen a proliferation of the word “open” when referring to information systems. Yet, when it comes to providing information in the public sector, the systems remain disappointingly closed. It’s time to shift the paradigm.

Generally speaking, all these laws firmly establish a citizen’s right to know what his or her government is doing and why. In reality, things are not so rosy and the real test is how laws are implemented. Worldwide, public political decision making is used as a synonym for the many activities that happen in the back chambers of national cabinets, community councils and executive branches of government. Despite strong legislation, this practice continues.

So, why is it so hard to implement this fundamental right?

Lack of openness

First, FOI laws usually contain many exemptions, including for national security, criminal investigations, ongoing negotiations, intellectual property, trade secrets and personal data privacy protection like GDPR in the EU. However, many exemptions make it all too easy to find an excuse to cover up unwelcome information from the public. There is an infamous example in the Netherlands of a citizen who received a lengthy document where only three words were not blacked out: two instances of the word ”the” and one ”a.”

This is the hallmark of a cultural problem. In many government organizations, reasoning and judgement calls are not fully shared. Civil servants are often risk-averse and protective of their political leadership. Implementing a strong FOI requires an open, transparent mindset and a willingness to admit mistakes, a tough cultural shift to make. To be fair, this doesn’t make government officials very different from most of us. But since governments have committed to be open, the culture must change.

The trouble with IS

The other major hurdle to FOI implementation lies in the Government IT landscape. Here’s why:

    • There is a staggering amount of information in a country’s information system, and much of it resides in legacy systems and/or as unstructured documents never designed to be open in the first place.
    • Information is stored without adequate metadata or full context. Even if the information is found, correct interpretation remains uncertain. Related information is not retrieved. Modern search solutions like Sinequa could tackle these issues, but due to the lack of pertinent metadata they remain a problem.
    • A lot of information is lost — either never recorded or recorded in places not covered by the organization’s archiving regime, like personal USB-sticks Did we store all emails? And do we store all social media posts? Sustainability of information has not always been a hot topic.
    • Many types of information require an expert to fully understand. Each complex profession creates its own jargon, not intelligible to the outsider. Government is certainly no exception. Information systems need to be designed in a way that when dealing with information with potential public access, users are encouraged to avoid jargon and access links for further explanation
    • Due to complex decision rules, current technology is not capable of deciding on a sentence-by-sentence basis what can and cannot be published in documents. While some AI applications are making progress in automating these tasks, full automation is still far away. Thus, preparing sensitive documents for publication remains a time-consuming manual task.
    • Here’s a high-profile example:
    • This year, the Dutch cabinet resigned because of the “Toeslagenaffaire” (allowances affair). The Tax Office had criminalized tens of thousands of citizens, blaming them of fraud without legitimate reasons. In the investigation that followed, preparing the dossier of just one citizen for publication took about four man-months. This also explains why people err on the side of caution and simply black out complete documents.

Openness by design

This all underscores the need for a paradigm shift in government information systems design. Government systems should be open by design, incorporating principles derived from Freedom of Information legislation.

In systems development, we take quality aspects of our systems into account during the design phase. A well-known example is security and privacy by design: We do not add security controls and privacy to systems, but we integrate them into the design phase. Another example is archiving by design: We design our systems and (meta) data models with the full information lifecycle in mind.

For government systems, openness by design should coexist and balance with the principles of security and privacy. We must aim to design information systems that allow for (semi) automatic publication of just the right amount of information, with all externally relevant context.

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About Rien Gouweloos
Principal Consultant Public Sector & Defense
Rien Gouweloos is a principal consultant working for the public sector market in Northern Europe from his home country, The Netherlands. He has a strong background in application development. The past 20 years of his career he has been consulting Atos’ clients in the public, education and health sectors on IT strategy and the organisation of IT. Currently his main focus is in the Justice domain. He strongly believes in the disruptive power of information technology and therefore that always and everywhere we should embrace the benefits, but simultaneously consider the risks and pitfalls of applying new technology.

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