Disclosure of public sector information

The following post is an excerpt from my thesis entitled Linked open data for public sector information.
The regulations require public bodies to take on an obligation of providing access to information they possess. The EU directive on the re-use of public sector information holds the disclosure of public sector information to be a “fundamental instrument for extending the right to knowledge, which is a basic principle of democracy” [1, p. 92]. In the light of this assertion, public bodies should ensure wide dissemination and long-term preservation of the information they produce.

Scope of disclosure

Public sector information is an umbrella term for all content produced by public bodies [2, p. 5]. Nonetheless, there are several exceptions to this rule, when defining the information that should be disclosed.
Public sector information covers any non-personal data held, collected or produced by a public body as a part of the public task, with the exception of the information relating to national security [3, p. 6]. Therefore, disclosure of public sector information should not apply to information that would abrogate individual privacy rights or endanger national security [4]. However, when left unquestioned, the goal of national security may lead public sector bodies to be overprotective of some data. For example, for some time in the US data about dams were not available due to the fear of misuse for terrorist attacks [5, p. 330].
In the EU, several types of public sector information are exempted from the requirement of disclosure. Public sector information held by cultural heritage institutions, such libraries, museums, and archives, currently falls under a different regime. It often has different qualities than the information from other parts of the public sector. This type of information is mostly static, held as a record, and not directly associated with the pursue of public tasks [6, p. 7]. Similarly, the public broadcasting and research information generated by education institutions is usually exempt from the scope of the definition of public sector information. However, besides the exceptions listed individually, all public sector information is a subject to the requirement of disclosure.

Types of disclosure

The approaches to disclosure of public sector information are usually categorized either according to the extent of disclosed information or by the activity of the public body.
The information that gets released might be limited a summary of the full information the public body possesses. Summary disclosure is used for informing about the decisions made by public bodies. On the other hand, full disclosure is used for informing the decisions of the public. For example, in the case of elections, decisions of the members of public are based on information from public bodies. Based on the distinction of the source of initiative that drives the disclosure, there are two models of information provision in the public sector: reactive and proactive [7, p. 155].

Reactive disclosure

Reactive disclosure is an on-demand, passive dissemination of public sector information that “implies an (enforceable) right for a subject to access to information on request” [8]. It institutes a permission culture of freedom of information requests. Joshua Tauberer criticizes reactive disclosure, because it provides only “a very narrow view of the public sector that is based on the requested snap-shots of data” [9]. This model is characterized by a strong information control and a lack of high-level political and bureaucratic support for open government and as such, reactive disclosure is unsuitable for the realization of this vision.

Proactive disclosure

Proactive disclosure is an active dissemination of public sector information that “means that the information is publicly available on the basis of a direct initiative of the public body” [8]. This type of disclosure may also be referred to as “suo motu” disclosure, that comes from the Latin “upon its own initiative” [10, p. 69]. Proactive disclosure thus requires a switch from “presumption of non-disclosure to presumption of openness” [Ibid., p. 66]. With such presumption, public sector information is thought of as public resource, as something to be shared. This way of disclosure is “suited for mediators” [9], that can transform the information and add value to it. An example of a model for proactive disclosure is open data, which will be discussed further in a greated detail.


  1. EU. Directive 2003/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 November 2003 on the re-use of public sector information. Official Journal of the European Union. 2003, vol. 46, L 345, p. 90 — 96. Also available from WWW: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2003:345:0090:0096:EN:PDF. ISSN 1725-2555.
  2. SCHELLONG, Alexander; STEPANETS, Ekaterina. Unchartered waters: the state of open data in Europe [online]. CSC, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-12]. Public sector study series, 01/2011. Available from WWW: http://assets1.csc.com/de/downloads/CSC_policy_paper_series_01_2011_unchartered_waters_state_of_open_data_europe_English_2.pdf
  3. YIU, Chris. A right to data: fulfilling the promise of open public data in the UK [online]. Research note. March 6th, 2012 [cit. 2012-03-06]. Available from WWW: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/category/item/a-right-to-data-fulfilling-the-promise-of-open-public-data-in-the-uk
  4. GIGLER, Bjorn-Soren; CUSTER, Samantha; RAHEMTULLA, Hanif. Realizing the vision of open government data: opportunities, challenges and pitfalls [online]. World Bank, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-11]. Available from WWW: http://www.scribd.com/WorldBankPublications/d/75642397-Realizing-the-Vision-of-Open-Government-Data-Long-Version-Opportunities-Challenges-and-Pitfalls
  5. LATHROP, Daniel; RUMA, Laurel (eds.). Open government: collaboration, transparency, and participation in practice. Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2010. ISBN 978-0-596-80435-0.
  6. VICKERY, Graham. Review of the recent developments on PSI re-use and related market developments [online]. Final version. Paris, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-19]. Available from WWW: http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/policy/psi/docs/pdfs/report/psi_final_version_formatted.docx
  7. FRANCOLI, Mary. What makes governments ‘open’?: sketching out models of open government. eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government [online]. 2011 [cit. 2012-03-15], vol. 3, no. 2, p. 152 — 165. ISSN 2075-9517. Available from WWW: http://www.jedem.org/issue/view/5
  8. SOLDA-KUTZMANN, Donatella. Public sector information: a market without failure? In Share-PSI Workshop: Re
    moving the Roadblocks to a Pan-European Market for Public Sector Information Re-use
    [online]. 2011 [cit. 2012-03-09]. Available from WWW: http://share-psi.eu/submitted-papers/
  9. TAUBERER, Joshua. Open government data: principles for a transparent government and an engaged public [online]. 2012 [cit. 2012-03-09]. Available from WWW: http://opengovdata.io/
  10. Beyond access: open government data & the right to (re)use public information [online]. Access Info Europe, Open Knowledge Foundation, January 7th, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-15]. Available from WWW: http://www.access-info.org/documents/Access_Docs/Advancing/Beyond_Access_7_January_2011_web.pdf

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