Open by Default

I find myself using the phrase ‘open by default’ more and more frequently. This post is an attempt to explore what I mean.

We use so many of these terms so rather loosely so that they start to lose their meaning – engage, participate, innovate, open – if we want to keep the power in the language we need to drill down and be clear on what the meaning is and why the term is important. With a phrase like open by default this is even more important as it has that special quality of elusive meaning that means it is perilously close to being spin doctor jargon rather than being something that is making a difference to people’s lives.

I think the meaning breaks down into 4 different aspects:

Open information – not just data
Open data – the idea that government originated data should be in the public domain in an accessible and useable way is now a fairly established idea even if its implementation is as yet rather patchy (Have a look at LinkedGov to understand the work involved in getting this right). There are two motivations behind open data, the first is a desire to make government more accountable. This would be enough of a reason in its own right as without transparency its very difficult to imagine how we will rebuild trust in the democratic process without a shift away from the idea that information is something that needs to be controlled in its contact with the public.

More than that – there is an injustice in the idea that we pay for the creation of this data, its data about us and yet we don’t have access to it all because the systems assume that information is in a sealed file in a dusty drawer in the basement. I feel this point very strongly with respect to research data – we pay for our higher education system through taxation and then we pay through the nose to read the results of the research process (There is an interesting debate about this on the LSE Politics Blog).

Secondly, the motivation is the growing understanding that if we are going to reboot the economy we will need knowledge based businesses to pay a major role in this. In addition to the specialist manufacturing and design innovation that the UK can provide we need to create a new kind of Digital economy that goes beyond using the internet to sell stuff and uses it to create real value. The raw material for this value creation is information – and a lot of it is locked up in government data silos.

There is a movement building behind the idea of open data, brilliant stuff from CountCulture, innovation from the London Data Store and the first OpenData Cities conference in Brighton.  I would argue however that open data is only part of what open by default really means.

Open process
Again, there are two sense this is important firstly with respect to trust in the democratic process and secondly with respect to the benefits of more open processes generally.

Trust in process is created by being clear about what the process is. A good democratic experience is one where you are happy that the outcome is fair even if it isn’t your preferred outcome. At present many of our decision making processes do not feel open to the public as they assume that the public have access to the only through their representatives and the public do not feel connected to politicians. We have a choice – amend the process or improve connections between citizens and politicians. The answer may be a combination of the two.

More generally, open processes enable far wider participation and also build in the possibility of creativity and innovation far more effectively than a process which assumes that the process managers have all the answers in advance. Look at events like CityCamp Brighton  to see what happens when you bring interested people together with no agenda and some basic resources. Personally – I don’t ever want to see a community meeting agenda again which has more than 50% of the time taken up with speakers as opposed to participants.

Open access
Open access is really about making sure that Government is ‘available’ to the public – as are politicians. This means taking the conversation, and the decision making process, to the places where people are and having the debate on their terms not at the convenience of government. Its also about using new channels to make it possible for far more people to connect directly to politicians. There are some things which need a face to face conversation but new technologies and the social shift around the way in which we use them means that we should insist that politicians and government actively engages with us using these channels – this is an entirely solvable problem.

Open standards
Technical standards allow interoperability and ultimately support collaborative behaviour online. By adopting an open, by implication shared, standard the developer is open to the idea of wider connection and cooperation between their work and others. Quite apart from the practical benefits this is a cultural statement. Taking this further and adopting open source licence models which encourage reuse and further development the use of open standards is a power – if technically sent – message. The Public Sector often talks of open source as being a cost saving measure with very limited understanding of the whole open source lifecycle and the real costs for making it successful. The real benefit of open source and open standards in my mind is the design signal that it sends in creating online experience.

If we want to be “open by default” then we need use open standards to build our civic architecture.

Open mind
There is a final sense in which I think we need to consider ‘open’ and ask ourselves how open we are to new ideas. One of the side effects I believe, of living a more digital and as a result public life is that your thinking is exposed. This blog is an active attempt to explore this – as an action researcher I am documenting my explorations and you can find numerous influences and contradictions in this. If we are open by default we have to be open to external influences as well as being open with our thought processes.

Is there a choice?
I am not sure that there is. The data and the content is all out there and I have no confidence that the people holding it – government and corporate – are going to keep it locked up properly even if they want to. I think the world is changing and that it is far better to move towards this actively rather than letting it happen.

Open by default doesn’t and shouldn’t mean completely open. I believe very strongly in our right and the importance of privacy and also in the importance of discretion and privacy within some conversations. However if we don’t start to redraw some of the legal and behavioural frameworks around these issues then the important elements that we want to preserve risk being overwhelmed as people just set data free. We need a proper conversation about this that accepts, the new reality, the risks and the opportunities and starts to shape what being open really means – we need to recalibrate our privacy machine.

I sometimes ask myself to what extent this is this a moral rather than a practical position for me. I am increasingly drawn to greater openness and transparency as I think that people function better with all the information and that people are able to make reasonable judgements about what they learn. I also think its easier – to be open means that you don’t have to remember who you have said what to and also minimises internal politics and builds trust. Ultimately I think its the right thing to do – the fact I have logical reasoning for believing this does not make it less of a moral position.

Being ‘open for by default’ – in the rich sense that I have outlined here – is what open practice means to me. Its more than just opening up the data or the standards and more than just being open minded. It is an effect of the publicness of a digital life but also a practice that allows you function well in open networks where there are not fixed and contained boundaries.

I have been speaking to people about the new Police and Crime Commissioners recently and asking questions about how we can build a good democratic experience into these new roles. I am advocating the use of open practice – of being open by default – and it feels risky and bold to the people I speak to. But I keep asking – because I want politicians to be risky and bold – and I want them to be open by default – and I think this is both a moral and a practical belief to hold.

  1. annemcx

    April 7, 2012 at 7:57 am

    Excellent post Catherine. This articulates many things I’ve wanted to for a long time. I’ve been writing about blatant integrity for a while, I believe openness is what our time needs most of all and the gentle logic of this post is a useful and valuable element in preparing a smooth path by which to get there.

    • curiouscatherine

      April 7, 2012 at 9:05 am

      Thanks Anne – this links very strongly to how I feel about organisational culture as well and I will be picking it up with a research project I am working on with these guys:

      I don’t see how we can demand openness in democracy if we don’t also demand it within our own behaviours.

      Obviously easier said than done!!

  2. Robert Teal

    April 7, 2012 at 8:38 am


    Is it legitimate that some groups would wish to participate in the democratic process but not have their identity revealed? Does Open Government extend to the petitioners for information revealing their identities or are “User Names” OK?

    Robert Teal

    • curiouscatherine

      April 7, 2012 at 9:03 am

      Hi Robert

      Actually – democratic identity is one of my side projects – have been curating some sessions at various govcamps on this and there is a fair amount of content here:

      Bottom line is that for me I think this is one of the contradictions we currently have as we experience this social shift. The logic is all there for saying that we would have a better debate and a better democracy without anonymity (online communities with real or at least consistent names tend to norm towards being constructive far faster than others) but the reality is that we need to give people the opportunity to use screen names and retain some degree of anonymity until we have reconciled the fact that people hold their professional and personal views separate. There is also I think the wider global point about what happens when you are outside of an established democracy (Evegeny Morozov being really good on this) which needs to be considered.

      So – in short – yes I think user names are ok for now!


  3. Robert Teal

    April 7, 2012 at 8:21 pm


    I tend to agree with annemcx

    “I don’t see how we can demand openness in democracy if we don’t also demand it within our own behaviours.

    Obviously easier said than done!!”

    and suggest a dialogue process would have to incorporate open input and trust building: maybe confidential process would get it the way??



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