Policy guidelines for the development and promotion of governmental public domain information

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II.1. Key policy elements and underlying assumptions

A comprehensive legislative and administrative policy approach is needed to successfully develop and promote the production, dissemination, and use of governmental information in the public domain. A national information policy requires the following three main elements to be successfully implemented:

  • Define the scope of information of a public nature that should be made available according to the nation’s needs (section II.2);

  • Establish access to and use of public information as a legal principle (section II.3); and

  • Develop and implement programmes for the management of information resources and dissemination of public information, through a comprehensive governmental Information Policy Framework (section II.4).

The rationale for, and implementation of, these elements are based on the following assumptions:
a. Public sector information is a valuable national resource. The open availability of this information, recognized by law, helps to ensure the citizens’ freedom of expression, as well as the accountability of government and its public bodies to manage the government’s operations, to maintain the healthy performance of the economy, and to provide essential services to society. Maximizing the open and unrestricted flow of information between the government and the public is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society and for the promotion of good governance.
b. In almost every country, the public sector is the largest single producer, collector, consumer, and disseminator of information. Because of the extent of public sector information activities, and the dependence of those activities upon public cooperation, the management of public sector information resources is an issue of continuing importance to all government entities and the public.
c. It is essential for the government, and other public bodies whose duties involve creating and making available information, to minimize the cost and burden on the public of its information activities, and to maximize the usefulness of its information. In order to do this successfully, the expected public and private benefits derived from public sector information should exceed the public and private costs of the information, recognizing, however, that the benefits may not always be quantifiable.
d. A nation can benefit from information that is openly disseminated, not only by government entities at the national level, but by sub-national governmental entities at different levels, and in general by any public sector organization. Because sub-national entities are important producers of public information for many sectors such as education, health, agriculture, environmental protection, social welfare, labour, and transportation, the national government should cooperate with them in the management of information resources. In particular, attention must be given to avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort by collecting information two or more times.
e. The strategic and systematic management of the official records of public organizations is essential. The long-term preservation of records protects the public entities’ historical records, helps to ensure public accountability, and protects the legal and financial rights of the public sector and the public.
f. Since the public disclosure of public sector information is essential to the operation of well-run national and local governments founded on democratic principles, the public's right of access to and use of this information should be ensured. At the same time, every citizen’s right to privacy must be protected in all public information activities that involve personal information.
g. Open and efficient access to public scientific and technical information funded by the public sector, subject to applicable national security controls and the rights of others deriving from obligations of confidentiality, intellectual property and privacy protection, fosters excellence in research and effective use of public research and development funds.
h. Information technology is not an end in itself, but just one set of resources that can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the services performed by public organizations. Nevertheless, the application of up-to-date information technology presents opportunities improve public organizations, their work processes, and their interactions with the public. The availability of public sector information in diverse media, especially in digital formats, permits greater flexibility in using the information for both government workers and the public. In this context, public entities should be aware of the importance of choosing the most appropriate format for ensuring the long-term preservation of the information.
i. Both the producers and users of public information resources must have the requisite skills, knowledge, and training to effectively perform their functions and make optimal use of those resources.
j. The willingness of government to promote access to information and to establish a comprehensive policy is essential. An effective, modern public information policy, however, requires the implementation of a national technical information infrastructure.

II.2. First key element: Define the scope of available public domain information produced by governments according to the nation’s needs

As discussed in Part I, there are many reasons for making the greatest possible amount of information produced by government entities openly available at the lowest possible cost to the public. It is worthwhile to summarize them:

  • Transparency of governance and democratic values are undermined by restricting citizens’ access to and use of public data and information. As a corollary, citizens’ rights of freedom of expression are compromised by restrictions on re-dissemination of public sector information, and particularly of factual data. It is no coincidence that the most repressive political regimes have the lowest levels of available information and the greatest restrictions on expression;

  • The tax-payer pays for the production of the information. Therefore, a government entity needs no legal incentives from exclusive property rights that are conferred by intellectual property laws to create or invest in the production of information, unlike authors or investors in the private sector. Both the activities that the government undertakes, and the information produced by the government through those activities, have “public good” characteristics;

  • There are numerous supplementary benefits that can be realized on an accelerated basis by the open dissemination of public domain data and information on the Internet. Many such benefits are not quantifiable and extend well beyond the economic sphere to include social welfare, educational, cultural, and good governance values - all supportive of national development objectives.25

These benefits of openness in the management of public sector information and the legal designation of that information as being freely available are not absolute, however. They must be balanced against legitimate countervailing and superseding interests arising from the protection of national security, personal privacy, obligations of confidentiality, and private intellectual property rights. The level of active dissemination of public sector information also should be considered in the broader framework of national policies and priorities.
Nevertheless, as a guiding principle, information produced by public entities in all branches and at all levels should be presumed to be available to the public, and any formal exceptions preventing citizens from accessing public information should be specifically justified and formulated as narrowly as possible. National governments should be encouraged to expand access to various types of public information resources and, as appropriate, to re-assess the balance between the existing policies and practices for making those information resources available and the legal protections that restrict use or reuse of such information.26 In addition, all publicly funded inter-governmental organizations should provide open access to all their publications and public databases, especially to potential users in developing countries, free of charge.

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