A Brief, Inaccurate, History
of Government Transparency

Written by Lewis Wynne-Jones

March 2, 2017
In the first chapter of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent, after discovering that his house is going to be demolished, is told by the man sent to do so that the notice for demolition had been on display for months. As it turns out, “on display” meant that the notice was

In the first chapter of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent, after discovering that his house is going to be demolished, is told by the man sent to do so that the notice for demolition had been on display for months. As it turns out, “on display” meant that the notice was

“in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

This is one of the all time best derogatory examples of bureaucracy.


The desire for government transparency is not new. It was there during the European Enlightenment and it was there during the Vietnam war; articulated differently, sure, but each time with the ultimate goal of making the people in charge tell it like it is.

These days the desire for a more transparent government is still evident, and no less important than it was in the 1760s or the 1960s. The movement is known as Open Government, and while it’s not Rousseau’s social contract or the FOIA it is an ideology that nonetheless belongs to the tradition of opening the windows to the smoke-filled room and letting in some sunlight.

Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The most profound recent change in the pursuit of transparency is that government information is, for the first time, easy to disseminate. The internet has made it possible for an engaged citizenry to keep up-to-date tabs on spending and potential corruption; they can find the information they need about the city in which they live; they can— ultimately — see exactly how the sausage is made, no matter how off-putting that knowledge might be.

But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s happening.

The good news is that the push for a fully digitized government, one that can and does share its data, is in full swing. Governments of every size and scope are increasingly launching transparency websites and open data portals; they’re recognizing the public enthusiasm for information and responding in kind.

But just because they’re doing it doesn’t mean they’re doing it right.

The truth of the matter is that there isn’t a rulebook when it comes to releasing public information. Or, rather, there are rulebooks, lots of them, but each corresponds only to the specific organization that’s doing the releasing. The result is that anyone who wants to actually use the information has to understand precisely the unique and often confounding standards by which each individual website, portal, etc is governed.

The result is that the information is available, sure, but not accessible.

Maybe it’s a good idea to remember the tin can.

People started putting food in sealed cans in the 1770’s. The invention, it should be said, was one of those serendipitous combinations of form and function that changes the world; it was not only simple in execution, but profoundly useful.

The can opener, however, wasn’t invented for another hundred and fifty years.

The point is that good ideas often need a little finessing before all the pieces fall into place.


The digitization of government is happening — no question about it — and it’s happening for all the right reasons. The usefulness of public data is no longer in question, and governments are realizing that it is beneficial to both them and their constituents to become open by default. The information they’re releasing, though, is too often sealed behind layers of bureaucracy and technical missteps, and anyone who wants to see what’s inside is going to have to work like a dog to get it.

But here’s the thing: the solution isn’t difficult.

All we need is a single place for all the government data that’s out there. Simple formats. A common API. Easy to find, easy to use, easy to digest.

Without those, the value of open data can’t be fully recognized.

The process takes time. So did the Freedom of Information Act. Hell, so did democracy. But it’s worth it.


ThinkData Works’ open data platform Namara is democratizing the digital world — check it out here.