Alpbach: Open Government -Transparency as a Democratic Opportunity (Dara Calleary)

Summary of the talk of Dara Callery at Forum Alpbach 2011. Listen to his talk and the resulting discussion.

What is Open Government? 

There are many different definitions. From “A Glossary of UK Government and Politics”:

The relatively unconstrained flow of information about government to the general public, the media and representative bodies. Open government is relative, not absolute.

From “The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science”:

Government whose policy-making and decisions are open to inspection at any time.

From a less likely source but maybe closer to the real the “real politique” from the “ fictional” BBC Series “Yes Minister” In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby the permanent secretary-

 ‘Open government is a contradiction in terms. You can be open, or you can have government’.

The challenge of balance

Proponents of greater freedom suggest that some relaxation of the tight controls on the supply of information would benefit good government. Excessive secrecy is said to undermine faith in the authority and fairness of government, fuelling suspicions that there is much inefficiency, waste or corruption going on behind the scenes. The more policies and their implications are fully unveiled and debated, the more likelihood there is of good decisions being made. Moreover, greater openness would act as a restraint upon ministers and officials, who would learn their decisions have to be capable of convincing justification.

Opponents believe that open government makes government more difficult to conduct, slowing down decision-making. Furthermore, to reveal documents or evidence that provided honest and candid advice for ministers would be against the public interest, discouraging officials from speaking freely. The challenge is to square this circle.

Ireland and Open Government:

Various pieces of legislation have improved public access to information in Ireland in recent years. There have also been some restricting legalisation inserted. The Data Protection Act 1988 gave individuals more control over their personal data held by public bodies.

The Freedom of Information Act 1997 also made it clear that individuals can access personal information held by public bodies and correct any errors. In addition the legislation allowed for non-personal information requests to be made, which had the potential to give people access to information about policy-making.

The Freedom of Information Act 2003 introduced fees for non-personal requests and also reduced the scope for the release of information relevant to policy, as it made certain categories of information automatically exempt, which had been previously available ( such as advice given to Ministers). However this has generally seen as been a restive piece of legislation in the context of the 2003 act. The new government are proposing an effective repeal of this act and a very wide extension of the 1997 act to ensure that more public bodies are included within it.

The Access to Information on the Environment Regulations in Ireland derive from a 2003 European Directive and grant access to information relevant to the environment that is held by any public body. While less well known that Freedom of Information, these regulations are important, as they affect all public bodies, where many public bodies ( such as the Central Bank, Gardai, NTMA, NAMA) and others do not come under the FOI Act.

In 1997 the notion of cabinet confidentiality was enshrined in the constitution. This is seen by many as restrictive to open government however is judged by others as essential for effective government. In addition to legislation there are a number of practical initiatives designed to improve the citizens interaction with government.


  •  The website was set up to keep people abreast of important developments across the Public Service. As part of the reform of the public service the initiative has been mainstreamed, whilst the website is now which is the website for the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform the OneGov newsletters are available on this website One Year Progress Report.
  • Taoiseachs (Prime Ministers)Awards:  The Awards were first launched in 2004 and are held every two years to recognise and reward examples of excellence in the delivery of public services and/or administration, by public servants. The purpose of the Awards is to seek out improvements and innovative activities from the Public Service Applications are invited from public servants who have initiated or designed one or more of the following:
    • Improvement to services delivered to the citizen and business customers, including through engagement with customers;
    • Innovative and creative activities, through flexibility, teamwork,cross-organisational co-operation and eGovernment;
    • Increased effectiveness and efficiency, including better use of resources, business process improvement and shared services.
  • The Fingal Open Data Project: Open Data is a worldwide movement which encourages government bodies to make official data freely available to the public in an open format. Fingal County Council is leading the way in Ireland , with Fingal Open Data Website, which is the first of its kind in the country and is based on the principles of Freedom of Information and the Reuse of Public Sector Information. This website releases useful information relating to Fingal, to be freely used by the wider community, and builds on the work of the Fingal Data Hub which was established to enable data sharing in relation to Fingal between nine partner agencies. There are four main objectives for Fingal Open Data:
    1. Transparency – access to the data used by officials in making decisions.
    2. Participation – citizens can use the data to analyse issues, propose new ideas and to enrich their lives and their community.
    3. Collaboration – data from different public sector agencies can be combined to facilitate collaboration.
    4. Economic Opportunities – data can be used as the basis for online services, mobile applications, analytics, etc. To date 70 datasets have been published in 12 categories, allowing a range of applications to be built. Already Fingal’s data has been used to provide location and contact details for such disparate services as polling stations, burial grounds and disabled parking spots, as well as allowing easy access to Fingal County Council reports and statistics, including allowances and expenses. The intention is that software developers will continue to identify and build many more useful apps.

Squaring the Circle

I spoke previously about the challenge of squaring the circle. Ensuring effective governance whilst at the same time ensuring the maximum participation of citizens.

We all agree that public access to information is a vital part of democratic rule. Democracy is fundamentally weakened if citizens do have reliable, easy access to information about how the decisions taken by those running their country and what reasons are given for the decisions made by those governments

In Ireland our constitution recognises that individual citizens have personal rights.

People have a right to be active participants in decision making. Public information is an important part of the checks and balances in a democratic state. When public representatives, civil society organisations and ordinary cititzens can access official records ,they are in a position to see for themselves what is being done with public money and what evidence there is for efficiency and effectiveness. In a real sense, access to information is power and open government requires that central government gives up power to conceal facts, repress reports and generally hid behind it failings behind a wall of secrecy

Open government presents a challenge to our politicians and public servants, but it is not a threat. It is also not an optional extra.

However the most important challenge for open Government is not secrecy versus transparency, but figuring out how much transparency and what type, to have over different aspects of the governmental process. It is my view that those suggest that transparency can cure all that ails public policy, raise public expectations of a much too extreme openness.

Transparency at its best involves citizens in the decision making process but doesn’t give them a veto over the common good, it ensures that affected parties can have constructive input in to government but not at the expense of progress in the interests of a nation.

Transparency is a democratic opportunity certainly but there are other such opportunities, all of which benefit citizens. The challenge for practitioners is to ensure we square the circle!


  1. Sir Humphrey: My job is to carry out government policy.
    Jim Hacker: Even if you think it is wrong?
    Sir Humphrey: Well, almost all government policy is wrong, but frightfully well carried out.

    — Epic!


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