Not with a Bang but a Whimper: The Politics of Accountability and Open Data in the UK

15 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 16 Aug 2011

See all articles by Tom McClean

Tom McClean

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

Date Written: 2011


Can the pro-active release of raw datasets by the government lead to more participatory democracy and government accountability? This paper explores the limits of what is possible through open government data by examining the UK government’s recent release of historic data in its COINS database of public expenditure. The paper begins by examining the origins of the UK’s open government data policy. It shows that far, from constituting a radical departure from pre-existing practice, the use of open data as a tool of democratic consolidation is in fact the outcome of several long-term trends in British politics and administration. It then shows that these origins encouraged a limited view of the likely impact of open government data on the actual exercise of democratic accountability, one which emphasises the removal of institutional barriers to access and tends to be overly-optimistic about how widely these data are likely to be used by individual citizens. Although pro-active disclosure may make it easier for “the public” to obtain information, there are still numerous barriers to actually using it, including the technical challenge of processing the raw data itself, the expertise to understand it and the existence of opportunities to act effectively on it. Overall, the paper argues that far from encouraging direct participation, the resource requirements for using government datasets actually reinforce the importance of intermediary organisations capable of processing and interpreting them, and that a rights-based framework may not be a particularly informative way of understanding the effects of open government data on democratic practice. It also suggests that the experience of the COINS disclosure has thus far confirmed a number of key claims made by technological sceptics, including that information technology is likely to reinforce existing power relations rather than disrupting them.

Keywords: open government data, accountability

Suggested Citation

McClean, Tom, Not with a Bang but a Whimper: The Politics of Accountability and Open Data in the UK (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Tom McClean (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) ( email )

Houghton Street
London, WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom


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