The Uncertain Future of Open Data in the Government of Canada

It is possible to state that presently, open data is at its high water mark in the Government of Canada. Data.gc.ca has been refreshed, more importantly, the government has signed the Open Data Charter committing it to making data “open” by default, and a rash of new data sets have been made available.

In other words there is a lot of momentum in the right direction. So what could go wrong.

The answer…? Everything.

The reason is the upcoming cabinet shuffle.

I confess that Minister Clement and I have not agreed on all things. I believe – like the evidence shows us – that needle injection sites such as Insite make communities safer, save lives and make it easier for drug users to get help. As Health Minister, Clement did not. I argued strongly against dismantling of the mandatory long form census, noting its demise would make our government dumber and, ultimately, more expensive. As Industry Minister, Minister Clement was responsible for the end of a reliable long form census.

However, when it comes to open data, Minister Clement has been a powerful voice in a government that has, on many occasions, looked for ways to make access to information harder, not easier. Indeed, open data advocates have been lucky to have had two deeply supportive ministers, Clement and, prior to him, Stockwell Day (who also felt strongly about this issue and was incredibly responsive to many of my concerns when I shared them). This run, though, may be ending.

With the Government in trouble there is wide spread acceptance that a major cabinet re-shuffle will be in order. While Minister Clement has been laying a lot of groundwork for the upcoming negotiations with the public sector unions and a rethink of the public service could be more effective and accountable, he may not be sticking around to see this work (that I’m sure the government sees as essential) through to the end. Nor may he want to. Treasury Board remains a relatively inward facing ministry and it would not surprise me if both the Minister, and the PMO, were interested in moving him to a portfolio that was more outward and public facing. Only a notable few politicians dream of wrestling with public servants and figuring out how to reform the public service. (Indeed Reg Alcock is the only one I can think of).

If the Minister is moved it will be a real test for the sustainability of open data at the federal level. Between the Open Data charter, the expertise and team built up within Treasury Board and hopefully some educational work Minister Clement has done within his own caucus, ideally there is enough momentum and infrastructure in place that the open data file will carry on. This is very much what I hope to be the case.

But much may depend on who is made President of the Treasury Board.  If that role changes open data advocates may find themselves busy not doing new things, but rather safe guarding gains already made.

 

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