Public Is Optimistic About Open Data Initiatives to Make Government More Accountable

Washington – Majorities hope that more transparency and data sharing by government will help journalists cover government and make officials more accountable, but very few think that government agencies are doing a great job of providing useful data, according to a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The representative survey of more than 3,000 U.S. adults finds there are public divisions about the possible impact of open-data initiatives by government that often are shaped by people’s levels of trust in government. For instance, only 23% of the public trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. In addition, people’s partisan views about the trustworthiness are a factor in their beliefs about government transparency and data initiatives: Democrats are more hopeful than Republicans. Overall:

  • 56% of adults say government data can help journalists cover government more thoroughly and 41% do not think that.

  • 53% support the idea that government data can make government more accountable to the public and 45% disagree.

  • 49% believe government data can improve the quality of government services and 49% do not say that.

  • 48% agree with the idea that government data can help citizens have more impact on government and 48% disagree with that.

  • 45% say government data can result in better decisions by government and 53% oppose that view.

Only a fraction of the public thinks government agencies are effective in sharing their data: Just 5% say the federal government shares data they collect with the public very effectively, with another 39% saying the federal government does this somewhat effectively. Just 5% say state governments share data very effectively, while 44% say they do so somewhat effectively and 7% say local governments share data very effectively, with 45% responding somewhat effectively. And only 19% can think of an example where local government did a good job providing information on public data it collects.

“As open data and open government initiatives get underway, most Americans are still largely engaged in ‘e-Gov 1.0’ online activities, with far fewer attuned to ‘Data-Gov 2.0’ initiatives that involve agencies sharing data online for public use,” said John B. Horrigan, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center.

“While most Americans use the Internet to intermittently access government information or services, few have considered how increasing the availability and utility of government data could impact their lives,” said Jon Sotsky, Knight Foundation director for strategy and assessment. “The split feelings about whether openly publishing more government data even has the potential to improve government accountability primarily reflects existing low levels of trust in government, which is ironic because open data initiatives largely aim to increase this trust.”

The data reveal that public trust in government shapes views on the impact of these initiatives on how government functions. In this survey, 23% of Americans say they trust the federal government to do the right thing at least most of the time. The key data:

  • 76% of those who generally trust the federal government say government data can help government officials be more accountable.

  • 73% believe government data can help journalists cover government more thoroughly.

  • 71% back the idea that government data results in better government decisions.

  • 70% agree with the notion that government data can enable people to have a greater impact on government affairs.

  • 69% say government data can improve the quality of government services.

A similar dynamic plays out when it comes to Americans trust in state and local governments. Those who trust other levels of government to do the right thing are more likely to hope open-data policies will have beneficial impacts.

Americans’ perspectives on trusting government are shaped strongly by partisan affiliation. In this analysis, 48% of respondents say they were Democrats or leaned that way, while 41% identified as Republicans (or leaned that way). Some 31% of those identifying as Democrats say they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time, compared with 15% of those identifying as Republicans. The report finds that Democrats have a somewhat more upbeat view on the impact of open data, with 54% of Democrats saying they believe open data helps improve the quality of government services, compared with 45% of Republicans.

The data in the report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey of 3,212 American adults (ages 18+) by the Pew Research Center on its American Trends Panel from Nov. 17-Dec. 15, 2014.

Among other findings:

In this early phase of opengovernment and opendata, people’s activities tend to be simple. Some 65% of Americans in the last 12 months have used the internet to find data or information about the government, with 27% using the internet or an app to learn about government-operated recreational activities, 18% to renew a driver’s license and 13% learning about or applying for a government benefit.

Americans are for the most part comfortable with government sharing online data about their communities, although they sound cautionary notes when the data hits close to home. Fully 82% of adults say they are comfortable with government sharing data online about the health and safety records of restaurants, and 62% are okay with government sharing information about criminal records of individual citizens online. And while 54% are comfortable with government sharing data about real estate transactions online, just 22% are okay withgovernment sharing information about mortgages of individual homeowners online.

Smartphone users have embraced information-gathering using mobile apps that rely on government data to function. Some 84% of smartphone users have used weather apps to find out the forecast nearby and 81% have used map apps to navigate through a city of neighborhood. Some 66% have used an app to find out about nearby stores, bars, or restaurants, 31% have used apps to get information about public transportation and 14% have used apps such as Uber or Lyft to hire cars.

The main survey report is available here.