‘Data.gov-in-a-box’ and Obama’s model of open government

‘Data.gov-in-a-box’ Delimiting transparency

From European Journal of Social Theory

After eight years of an administration that appeared increasingly enamoured by and wedded to secrecy, it is not surprising that Barack Obama invested so heavily in the rhetoric of transparency in the early days of his presidency. The public was told that his administration would be ‘the most open and transparent in history’. (The White House, 2009a). But instead of reversing many of the secretive practices of the Bush Administration, it can be seen to have instead increased them (e.g. the use of drone strikes and covert cyber-weapons; a punitive approach to whistleblowers; and, the mining of worldwide communications).

Obama’s transparency primarily involved the establishment of a web interface – data.gov – and the release of a directive (The White House, 2009c) to ensure government agencies would publish timely datasets and information on it. Indeed, other nations can now use this model of open government – the Open Government Platform (also described as ‘data.gov-in-a-box’). This article explores the implications of responsibilization, outsourcing, and commodification on notions of civic duty and the implicit contract between representatives and those represented within a liberal democracy.


Given that the Obama administration still relies on many strategies we would think of as sitting on the side of secrecy, it seems that the only lasting transparency legacy of the Obama administration will be data-driven or e-transparency as exemplified by the web interface ‘data.gov’. As the data-driven transparency model is exported and assumes an ascendant position around the globe, it is imperative that we ask what kind of publics, subjects, and indeed, politics it will produce. Open government data is not just a matter concerning accountability but is seen as a necessary component of the new ‘data economy’. To participate and benefit from this info-capitalist-democracy, the data subject is called upon to be both auditor and entrepreneur. This article explores the implications of responsibilization, outsourcing, and commodification on the contract of representational democracy and asks if there are other forms of transparency that might better resist neoliberal formations and re-politicize the public sphere.

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Article details
Clare Birchall
‘Data.gov-in-a-box’: Delimiting transparency
European Journal of Social Theory May 2015 18: 185-202, first published on March 1, 2015 doi:10.1177/1368431014555259




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