Tag Archives: canadian public sector renewal

Government Procurement Reform – It matters

Earlier this week I posted a slidecast on my talk to Canada’s Access to Information Commissioners about how, as they do their work, they need to look deeper into the government “stack.”

My core argument was how decisions about what information gets made accessible is no longer best managed at the end of a policy development or program delivery process but rather should be embedded in it. This means monkeying around and ensuring there is capacity to export government information and data from the tools (e.g. software) government uses every day. Logically, this means monkeying around in procurement policy (see slide below) since that is where the specs for the tools public servants use get set. Trying to bake “access” into processes after the software has been chosen is, well, often an expensive nightmare.

Gov stack

Privately, one participant from a police force, came up to me afterward and said that I was simply guiding people to another problem – procurement. He is right. I am. Almost everyone I talk to in government feels like procurement is broken. I’ve said as much myself in the past. Clay Johnson is someone who has thought about this more than others, here he is below at the Code for America Summit with a great slide (and talk) about how the current government procurement regime rewards all the wrong behaviours and often, all the wrong players.

Clay Risk profile

So yes, I’m pushing the RTI and open data community to think about procurement on purpose. Procurement is borked. Badly. Not just from a wasting tax dollars money perspective, or even just from a service delivery perspective, but also because it doesn’t serve the goals of transparency well. Quite the opposite. More importantly, it isn’t going to get fixed until more people start pointing out that it is broken and start contributing to solving this major bottle neck of a problem.

I highly, highly recommend reading Clay Johnson’s and Harper Reed’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times about procurement titled Why the Government Never Gets Tech Right.

All of this becomes more important if the White House’s (and other governments’ at all levels) have any hope of executing on their digital strategies (image below).  There is going to be a giant effort to digitize much of what governments do and a huge number of opportunities for finding efficiencies and improving services is going to come from this. However, if all of this depends on multi-million (or worse 10 or 100 million) dollar systems and websites we are, to put it frankly, screwed. The future of government isn’t to be (continue to be?) taken over by some massive SAP implementation that is so rigid and controlled it gives governments almost no opportunity to innovate. And this is the future our procurement policies steer us toward. A future with only a tiny handful of possible vendors, a high risk of project failure and highly rigid and frail systems that are expensive to adapt.

Worse there is no easy path here. I don’t see anyone doing procurement right. So we are going to have to dive into a thorny, tough problem. However, the more governments that try to tackle it in radical ways, the faster we can learn some new and interesting lessons.

Open Data WH

Statistics Canada Data to become OpenData – Background, Winners and Next Steps

As some of you learned last night, Embassy Magazine broke the story that all of Statistics Canada’s online data will not only be made free, but released under the Government of Canada’s Open Data License Agreement (updated and reviewed earlier this week) that allows for commercial re-use.

This decision has been in the works for months, and while it does not appear to have been formally announced, Embassy Magazine does appear to have managed to get a Statistics Canada spokesperson to confirm it is true. I have a few thoughts about this story: Some background, who wins from this decision, and most importantly, some hope for what it will, and won’t lead to next.


In the embassy article, the spokesperson claimed this decision had been in the works for years, something that is probably technically true. Such a decision – or something akin to it – has likely been contemplated a number of times. And there have been a number of trials and projects that have allowed for some data to be made accessible albeit under fairly restrictive licenses.

But it is less clear that the culture of open data has arrived at StatsCan, and less clear to me that this decision was internally driven. I’ve met many a Statscan employee who encountered enormous resistance while advocating for data open. I remember pressing the issue during a talk at one of the department’s middle managers conference in November of 2008 and seeing half the room nod vigorously in agreement, while the other half crossed it arms in strong disapproval.

Consequently, with the federal government increasingly interested in open data, coupled with a desire to have a good news story coming out of statscan after last summer census debacle, and with many decisions in Ottawa happening centrally, I suspect this decision occurred outside the department. This does not diminish its positive impact, but it does mean that a number of the next steps, many of which will require StatsCan to adapt its role, may not happen as quickly as some will hope, as the organization may take some time to come to terms with the new reality and the culture shift it will entail.

This may be compounded by the fact that there may be tougher news on the horizon for StatsCan. With every department required to have submitted proposal to cut their budgets by either 5% and 10%, and with StatsCan having already seen a number of its programs cut, there may be fewer resources in the organization to take advantage of the opportunity making its data open creates, or even just adjust to what has happened.

Winners (briefly)

The winners from this decision are of course, consumers of statscan’s data. Indirectly, this includes all of us, since provincial and local governments are big consumers of statscan data and so now – assuming it is structured in such a manner – they will have easier (and cheaper) access to it. This is also true of large companies and non-profits which have used statscan data to locate stores, target services and generally allocate resources more efficiently. The opportunity now opens for smaller players to also benefit.

Indeed, this is the real hope. That a whole new category of winners emerges. That the barrier to use for software developers, entrepreneurs, students, academics, smaller companies and non-profits will be lowered in a manner that will enable a larger community to make use of the data and therefor create economic or social goods.

Such a community, however, will take time to evolve, and will benefit from support.

And finally, I think StatsCan is a winner. This decision brings it more profoundly into the digital age. It opens up new possibilities and, frankly, pushes a culture change that I believe is long over due. I suspect times are tough at StatsCan – although not as a result of this decision – this decision creates room to rethink how the department works and thinks.

Next Steps

The first thing everybody will be waiting for is to see exactly what data gets shared, in what structure and to what detail. Indeed this question arose a number of times on twitter with people posting tweets such as “Cool. This is all sorts of awesome. Are geo boundary files included too, like Census Tracts and postcodes?” We shall see. My hope is yes and I think the odds are good. But I could be wrong, at which point all this could turn into the most over hyped data story of the year. (Which actually matters now that data analysts are one of the fastest growing categories of jobs in North America).

Second, open data creates an opportunity for a new and more relevant role for StatsCan to a broader set of Canadians. Someone from StatsCan should talk to the data group at the World Bank around their transformation after they launched their open data portal (I’d be happy to make the introduction). That data portal now accounts for a significant portion of all the Bank’s web traffic, and the group is going through a dramatic transformation, realizing they are no longer curators of data for bank staff and a small elite group of clients around the world but curators of economic data for the world. I’m told a new, while the change has not been easy, a broader set of users have brought a new sense of purpose and identity. The same could be true of StatsCan. Rather than just an organization that serves the government of Canada and a select groups of clients, StatsCan could become the curators of data for all Canadians. This is a much more ambitious, but I’d argue more democratized and important goal.

And it is here that I hope other next steps will unfold. In the United States, (which has had free census data for as long as anyone I talked to can remember) whenever new data is released the census bureau runs workshops around the country, educating people on how to use and work with its data. StatsCan and a number of other partners already do some of this, but my hope is that there will be much, much more of it. We need a society that is significantly more data literate, and StatsCan along with the universities, colleges and schools could have a powerful role in cultivating this. Tracey Lauriault over at the DataLibre blog has been a fantastic advocate of such an approach.

I also hope that StatsCan will take its role as data curator for the country very seriously and think of new ways that its products can foster economic and social development. Offering APIs into its data sets would be a logical next step, something that would allow developers to embed census data right into their applications and ensure the data was always up to date. No one is expecting this to happen right away, but it was another question that arose on twitter after the story broke, so one can see that new types of users will be interested in new, and more efficient ways, of accessing the data.

But I think most importantly, the next step will need to come from us citizens. This announcement marks a major change in how StatsCan works. We need to be supportive, particularly at a time of budget cuts. While we are grateful for open data, it would be a shame if the institution that makes it all possible was reduced to a shell of its former self. Good quality data – and analysis to inform public policy – is essential to a modern economy, society, and government. Now that we will have free access to what our tax dollars have already paid for, let’s make sure that it stays that way, by both ensure it continues to be available, and that there continues to be a quality institution capable of collecting and analyzing it.

(sorry for typos – it’s 4am, will revise in the morning)

The Canadian Government's New Web 2.0 Guidelines: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Yesterday, the government of Canada released its new Guidelines for external use of Web 2.0. For the 99.99% of you unfamiliar  with what this is, it’s the guidelines (rules) that govern how, and when, public servants may use web 2.0 tools such as twitter and facebook.

You, of course, likely work in organization that survives without such documents. Congratulations. You work in a place where the general rule is “don’t be an idiot” and your bosses trust your sense of judgement. That said, you probably also don’t work somewhere where disgruntled former employees and the CBC are trolling the essentially personal online statements of your summer interns so they can turn it into a scandal. (Yes, summer student border guards have political opinions, don’t like guns and enjoy partying. Shocker). All this to say, there are good and rational reasons why the public service creates guidelines: to protect not just the government, but public servants.

So for those uninterested in reading the 31 page, 12,055 word guidelines document here’s a review:

The Good

Sending the right message

First off, the document, for all its faults, does get one overarching piece right. Almost right off the bat (top of section 3.2) is shares that Ministries should be using Web 2.0 tools:

Government of Canada departments are encouraged to use Web 2.0 tools and services as an efficient and effective additional channel to interact with the public. A large number of Canadians are now regularly using Web 2.0 tools and services to find information about, and interact with, individuals and organizations.

Given the paucity of Web 2.0 use in the Federal government internally or externally this clear message from Treasury Board, and from a government minister, is the type of encouragement needed to bring government communications into 2008 (the British Government, with its amazing Power of Information Taskforce, has been there for years).

Note: there is a very, very, ugly counterpart to this point. See below.

Good stuff for the little guy

Second, the rules for Professional Networking & Personal Use are fairly reasonable. There are some challenges (notes below), but if any public servant ever finds them or has the energy to read the document, they are completely workable.

The medium is the message

Finally, the document acknowledges that the web 2.0 world is constantly evolving and references a web 2.0 tool by which public servants can find ways to adapt. THIS IS EXACTLY THE RIGHT APPROACH. You don’t deal with fast evolving social media environment by handing out decrees in stone tablets, you manage it by offering people communities of practice where they can get the latest and best information. Hence this line:

Additional guidance on the use of Web 2.0 tools and services is in various stages of development by communities of expertise and Web 2.0 practitioners within the Government of Canada. Many of these resources are available to public servants on the Government of Canada’s internal wiki, GCpedia. While these resources are not official Government of Canada policies or guidelines, they are valuable sources of information in this rapidly evolving environment.

Represents a somewhat truly exciting development in the glacially paced evolution of government procedures. The use of social media (GCPEDIA) to manage social media.

Indeed, still more exciting for me is that this was the first time I’ve seen an official government document reference GCPEDIA as a canonical source of information. And it did it twice, once, above, pointing to a community of practice, the second was pointing to the GCPEDIA “Social media procurement process” page. Getting government to use social media internally is I think the biggest challenge at the moment, and this document does it.

The Bad

Too big to succeed

The biggest problem with the document is its structure. It is so long, and so filled with various forms of compliance, that only the most dedicated public servant (read, communications officer tasked with a social media task) will ever read this. Indeed for a document that is supposed to encourage public servants to use social media, I suspect it will do just the opposite. Its density and list of controls will cause many who were on the fence to stay there – if not retreat further. While the directions for departments are more clear, for the little guy… (See next piece)

Sledgehammers for nails

The documents main problem is that it tries to address all uses of social media. Helpfully, it acknowledges there are broadly two types of uses “Departmental Web 2.0 initiatives” (e.g. a facebook group for a employment insurance program) and “personnel/professional use” (e.g. a individual public servant’s use of twitter or linked in to do their job). Unhelpfully, it addresses both of them.

In my mind 95% of the document relates to departmental uses… this is about ensuring that someone claiming to represent the government in an official capacity does not screw up. The problem is, all those policies aren’t as relevant to Joe/Jane public servant in their cubicle trying to find an old colleague on LinkedIn (assuming they can access linkedin). It’s overkill. These should be separate documents, that way the personal use document could be smaller, more accessible and far less intimidating. Indeed, as the guidelines suggest, all it should really have to do is reference the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service (essentially the “idiots guide to how not to be an idiot on the job” for public servants) and that would have been sufficient. Happily most public servants are already familiar with this document, so simply understanding that those guidelines apply online as much as offline, gets us 90% of the way there.

In summary, despite a worthy effort, it seem unlikely this document will encourage public servants to use Web 2.0 tools in their jobs. Indeed, for a (Canadian) comparison consider the BC Government’s guidelines document, the dryly named “Policy No. 33: Use of Social Media in the B.C. Public Service.”  Indeed, despite engaging both use cases it manages covers all the bases, is straightforward, and encouraging, and treats the employee with an enormous amount of respect. All this in a nifty 2 pages and 1,394 words. Pretty much exactly what a public servant is looking for.

The Ugly

Sadly, there is some ugliness.

Suggestions, not change

In the good section I mentioned that the government is encouraging ministries to use social media… this is true. But it is not mandating it. Nor does these guidelines say anything to Ministerial IT staff, most of whom are blocking public servant’s access to sites like facebook, twitter, in many cases, my blog, etc… The sad fact is, there may now be guidelines that allow public servants to use these tools, but in most cases, they’d have to go home, or to a local coffee shop (many do) in order to actually make use of these guidelines. For most public servants, much of the internet remains beyond their reach, causing them to fall further and further behind in understanding how technology will effect their jobs and their department/program’s function in society.

It’s not about communication, it’s about control

In his speech at PSEngage yesterday the Treasury Board Minister talked about the need for collaboration on how technology can help the public service reinvent how it collaborates:

The Government encourages the use of new Web 2.0 tools and technologies such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These tools help create a more modern, open and collaborative workplace and lead to more “just-in-time” communications with the public.

This is great news. And I believe the Minister believes it too. He’s definitely a fan of technology in all the right ways. However, the guidelines are mostly about control. Consider this paragraph:

Departments should designate a senior official accountable and responsible for the coordination of all Web 2.0 activities as well as an appropriate governance structure. It is recommended that the Head of Communications be the designated official. This designate should collaborate with departmental personnel who have expertise in using and executing Web 2.0 initiatives, as well as with representatives from the following fields in their governance structure: information management, information technology, communications, official languages, the Federal Identity Program, legal services, access to information and privacy, security, values and ethics, programs and services, human resources, the user community, as well as the Senior Departmental Official as established by the Standard on Web Accessibility. A multidisciplinary team is particularly important so that policy interpretations are appropriately made and followed when managing information resources through Web 2.0 tools and services.

You get all that? That’s at least 11 variables that need to be managed. Or, put another way, 11 different manuals you need to have at your desk when using social media for departmental purposes. That makes for a pretty constricted hole for information to get out through, and I suspect it pretty much kills most of the spontaneity, rapid response time and personal voice that makes social media effective. Moreover, with one person accountable, and this area of communications still relatively new, I suspect that the person in charge, given all these requirements, is going to have a fairly low level of risk. Even I might conclude it is safer to just post an ad in the newspaper and let the phone operators at Service Canada deal with the public.


So it ain’t all bad. Indeed, there is much that is commendable and could be worked with. I think, in the end, 80% of the problems with the document could be resolved if the government simply created two versions, one for official departmental uses, the other for individual public servants. If it could then restrain the lawyers from repeating everything in the Values and Ethics code all over again, you’d have something that social media activists in the public service could seize upon.

My sense is that the Minister is genuinely interested in enabling public servants to use technology to do their jobs better – he knows from personal experience how helpful social media can be. This is great news for those who care about these issues, and it means that pressing for a better revised version might yield a positive outcome. Better to try now, with a true ally in the president’s office than with someone who probably won’t care.


Edmonton Heads for the Cloud

I’m confident that somewhere in Canada, some resource strapped innovative small town has abandoned desktop software and uses a cloud based service but so far no city of any real size has even publicly said they were considering the possibility.

That is, until today.

Looks like Edmonton’s IT group – which is not just one of the most forward looking in the country continues to make the rubber hit the road – is moving its email and office suite to the cloud. (I’ve posted the entire doc below since it isn’t easy to link to)

They aren’t the first city in the world to do this: Washington D.C., Orlando and Los Angeles have all moved to Google apps (in each case displacing Microsoft Office) but they are the first in Canada – a country not known for its risk taking IT departments.

I can imagine that a lot government IT people will be watching closely. And that’s too bad. There is far too much watching in Canada when there could be a lot of innovating and saving. While some will site LA’s bumpy transition, Orlando’s and DC’s were relatively smooth and are still cities that are far larger than most of their Canadian counterparts. LA is more akin to transitioning a province (or Toronto). Nobody else get’s that pass.

Two things:

1) I’ve highlighted what I think is some of the interesting points in the document being presented to council.

2) A lot of IT staff in other cities will claim that it is “too early” to know if this is going to work.

People. Wake up. It is really hard to imagine you won’t be moving to the cloud at some point in the VERY near future. I frankly don’t care which cloud solution you choose (Google vs. Microsoft) that choice is less important than actually making the move. Is Edmonton taking some risks? Yes. But it is also going to be the first city to learn the lessons, change its job descriptions, work flows, processes and the zillion other things that will come out of this. This means they’ll have a cost and productivity advantage over other cities as they play catch up. And I suspect, that there will never be a catch up, as Edmonton will already be doing the next obvious thing.

If your a IT person in a city, the question is no longer, do you lead or follow. It is merely, how far behind are you going to be comfortable being?

6. 13

Workspace Edmonton

Sole Source Agreement


That, subject to the necessary funding being made available, Administration enter into a sole source agreement, in an amount not exceeding $5 million, and a period not exceeding five years, with Google Inc., for the provision of computing productivity tools, and that the contract be in form and content acceptable to the City Manager.

Report Summary

The IT Branch undertook a technical assessment of seven options for the delivery of desktop productivity tools. Software as a Service (‘cloud computing’) was identified as the preferred direction as it allows the corporation to work from anytime, place or device. Google Mail and Google Apps were determined to provide the best solution. The change will ensure ongoing sustainability of the services, provides opportunities for service and productivity gains, and align IT services with key principles in The Way We Green, The Way We Live and The Way We Move.


The City Administration Bylaw 12005 requires approval from Executive Committee for Single Source Contracts (contracts to be awarded without tendering) in excess of $500,000, and those contracts that may exceed ten years in duration.

The Workspace Edmonton Program consists of two initiatives, which will allow the delivery of information technology software and services to employees, contractors and third party partners anytime and place, and on any device. In order to accomplish this the administration is proposing moving away from a model where software is installed on every computer to a solution where the software is housed on the internet (‘cloud computing’).

Administration is recommending the implementation of Google Apps Premier Edition as the primary computing productivity tool, with targeted use of Microsoft Office and SharePoint. The recommended direction will allow the City to move to Google Mail as the corporate messaging tool and Google Apps as the primary office productivity tools. It will also allow the corporation access to other applications offered by Google Inc. and partners to Google Inc. Microsoft Office and SharePoint will remain as the secondary office productivity tools for business areas that require these applications for specific business needs. Use of the Microsoft tools will require completion of the appropriate use case and approval by the Chief Information Officer.

Administration is requesting approval to proceed to negotiation of a contract with Google Inc. The sole source agreement is required at this time to allow the program to be developed in 2011. This is foundational work that will allow the program to proceed to implementation in 2012. The contract is also required in order to complete the Privacy Impact Assessment and develop implementation plans.


Workspace Edmonton creates the opportunity for the City of Edmonton to significantly change the way we work. Administration will have increased options for delivering services to citizens, including enhanced mobile field services and new opportunities for community consultation and collaboration. The consumer version of Google is free to private citizens and not-for-profit groups and would allow additional options for collaboration with organizations such as community leagues with no net cost to the corporation or organization.

The move to G-Mail will allow the corporation to extend email access to all city employees, improving access to information and communications. It will also allow for implementation of a number of services without additional licensing costs, including:

  • audio and video chat
  • group sites to allow improved collaboration with external
    partners and community groups
  • internal Youtube for training and information sharing
  • increased collaboration through document sharing and simultaneous authoring capabilities

The program presents the opportunity for the City to better address the expectations of the next generation of workers by providing options to bring your device and to work with software many already use. Both Edmonton Public Schools and the University of Alberta have implemented Google Apps.

In addition, the implementation of Google Apps will include an e-records
solution for documents stored in Google Apps. This will be implemented in partnership with the Office of the City Clerk. The benefit of this being alignment with legislated and corporate requirements for records retention, retrieval, and disposal.

Moving to the Software as a Service Model (‘cloud computing’) through the internet will avoid additional hardware and support costs associated with increased service demands due to growth. This solution provides a more sustainable business model, reducing demands on resources for regular product upgrades and services support. Finally, the relocation of software and data to multiple secure data centres facilitates continuation of services during emergencies such as natural disasters and pandemics. City employees will be able to access email and documents through the internet from any office or home computer.

Solution Assessments

The IT Branch undertook a technical assessment of seven office productivity software and service delivery options. A financial assessment of the top three options was subsequently completed and the recommended direction to move to Google Inc. as the service provider was based on these assessments. Following this, the IT Branch undertook a security assessment to ensure the option chosen met security requirements and industry standards. A Privacy Impact Assessment has been initiated and will be completed upon negotiation of an agreement. Precedent in Alberta has been set with both the Edmonton Public School Board and the University of Alberta entering into agreements with Google Inc.

Strategic Direction

The Workspace Edmonton Program supports Council’s strategic direction for innovation and a well managed city, as well as key principles in The Way We Green, The Way We Move, and the Way We Live.

Budget/Financial Implications

Google Messaging and Apps will replace the existing Microsoft Exchange and majority of Office licenses. The funding currently in place for Microsoft license maintenance will be sufficient to fund the annual Google services.

2011 funding for the implementation of overall Workspace Edmonton Program is within the current IT budgets and will be the source of funding. Funding for 2012 will be included in the 2012 budget request.    A business case for this initiative was completed and is available for review.

The Workspace Edmonton model aligns with and complements the corporate initiative of Transforming Edmonton. The administration will look for opportunities to integrate the programs and utilize a portion of the funding for Transforming Edmonton to fund Workspace Edmonton change and transition requirements.


If the recommendation is not supported, Workspace Edmonton will stop and the corporation will be required to either go to Request For Proposal or remain on the existing platform. Remaining on the existing platform will require additional funding in future years to support continued maintenance costs and future growth. (Extending email only to city staff who do not currently have email accounts would cost the corporation approximately $900,000 per year with the existing solution.) Delaying the implementation to 2012 would result in delays to return on investment and achievement of the benefits.

Justification of Recommendation
Technical, financial and security assessments have been completed. The recommended solution meets business requirements, provides opportunities to increase and improve service delivery and is projected to garner a return on investment within 18 to 24 months of implementation. Approval of this recommendation will allow Administration to proceed to negotiation of a contract.

Others Reviewing this Report
• L. Rosen, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer

WRITTEN BY – D. Kronewitt-Martin | August 24, 2011 – Corporate Services 2011COT006

Making StatsCan Data Free: Assessing the Cost

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve advocated that StatsCan’s data – and particularly its Census data – should be made open (e.g. free, unlicensed, and downloadable in multiple formats). Presently, despite the fact that Canadian tax dollars pay to collect (a sadly diminishing amount, and quality of,) data, it is not open.

The main defense I hear to why StatsCan’s data should not be free is because the department depends on the revenue the data generates.

So exactly how much revenue are we talking about? Thanks to the help of some former public servants I’ve been able to go over the publicly available numbers. The basic assessment – which I encourage people to verify and challenge – turns out not to be a huge a number.

The most interesting figure in StatsCan’s finances is the revenue it generates from its online database (e.g. data downloaded from its website). So how much revenue is it? Well in 2007/2008, it was $559,000.

That’s it. For $559,000 in lost government revenue Canadians could potentially have unlimited access to the Statscan census database their tax dollars paid to collect and organize. I suspect this is a tiny fraction of the value (and tax revenue) that might be generated by economic activity if this data were free.

Worse, the $559,000 is not profit. From what I can tell it is only revenue. Consequently, it doesn’t factor in collection costs StatsCan has to absorb to run and maintain a checkout system on its website, collect credit card info, bill people, etc… I’m willing to bet almost anything that the cost of these functions either exceed $559,000 a year, or come pretty close. So the net cost of making the data free could end up being a less.

StatsCan makes another $763,000 selling Statistics Canada publications (these are 243 data releases of the 29 major economic indicators StatsCan measures and the 5 census releases it does annually – in short these are non-customized reports). So for $1,422,000 Canadians could get access to both the online data statscan has and the reports the organization generates. This is such laughably (or depressingly) small number it begs the question – why are we debating this? (again this is revenue, not profit, so the cost could be much lower)

Of course, the figure that you’ll often hear cited is $100M in revenue. So what accounts for the roughly 100x difference between the above number and the alleged revenue? Well, in 2007/08 StatsCan did make $103,155,000 but this was from value added (e.g. customized) reports. This is very, very different product than the basic data that is available on its website. My sources tell me this is not related to downloaded data.

I think we should concede that if the entire StatsCan’s database were made open and free it would impact some of this revenue. But this would also be a good thing. Why is this? Let’s break it down:

  1. Increase Capacity and Data Literacy: By making a great deal of data open and free, StatsCan would make it easier for competitors to enter the market place. More companies and individuals could analyze the country’s census and other data, and so too could more “ordinary” Canadians than ever would be able to access the database (again, that their tax dollars paid to create). This might include groups like senior high school and university students, non-profits and everyday citizens who wanted to know more about their country. So yes, Statscan would have more competitors, but the country might also benefit from having a more data literate population (and thus potential consumers).
  2. Increase Accessibility of Canadian Data to Marginalized Groups: An increase in the country’s analysis capacity would drop the price for such work. This would make it cheaper and easier for more marginal groups to benefit from this data – charities, religious groups, NGO’s, community organizations, individuals, etc…
  3. Improve Competitiveness: It would also be good for Canadian competitiveness, companies would have to spend less to understand and sell into the Canadian market. This would lower the cost of doing business in Canada – helpful to consumers and the Canadian economy.
  4. StatsCan would not lose all or even most of its business: Those at StatsCan who fear the organization would be overwhelmed by a more open world should remember, not all the data can be shared. Some data – particularly economic data gathered from companies – is sensitive and confidential. As a result there will be some data that StatsCan retains exclusive access to, and thus a monopoly over analysis. More importantly, I suspect that were Statscan data made open the demand for data analysis would grow, so arguably new capacity might end up being devoted to new demand, not existing demand.
  5. It will Reduce the Cost of Government: Finally, the crazy thing about StatsCan is that it sells its data and services to other Ministries and layers of government. This means that governments are paying people to move tax payer money between government ministries and jurisdictions. This is a needless administrative costs that drives up everybody’s taxes and poorly allocates scarce government resources (especially at the local level). Assuming every town and city in Canada pays $50 – 1000 dollars to access statscan data may not seem like much, but in reality, we are really paying that, plus their and StatsCan’s staff time to manage all these transactions, enforce compliance, etc… all of which is probably, far, far more.

So in summary, the cost to Canada of releasing this data will likely be pretty marginal, while the benefits could be enormous.

At best, if costs half a million dollars in forgone revenue. Given the improved access and enormous benefits, this is a pittance to pay.

At worst, StatsCana would lose maybe 20-30 million – this is a real nightmare scenario that assumes much greater competition in the marketplace (again, a lot of assumptions in this scenario). Of course the improved access to data would lead to economic benefits that would far, far, surpass this lost revenue, so the net benefit for the country would be big, but the cost to StatsCan would be real. Obviously, it would be nice if this decline in revenue was offset by improved funding for StatsCan (something a government that was genuinely concerned about Canadian economic competitiveness would jump at doing). However, given the current struggles Statscan faces on the revenue front (cuts across the board) I could see how a worse case scenario would be nerve wracking to the department’s senior public servants, who are also still reeling from the Long Form Census debacle.

Ultimately, however, I think the worse case scenario is unlikely. Moreover, in either scenario the benefits are significant.

Bonus Material:

Possibly the most disconcerting part of the financial reports on StatsCan on Treasury Board’s website was the stakeholder consultation associated with access to statscan’s database. It claimed that:

Usability and client satisfaction survey were conducted with a sample of clients in early 2005. Declared level of satisfaction with service was very high.

This is stunning. I’ve never talked to anyone who has had a satisfactory experience on StatsCan’s website (in contrast to their phone support – which everyone loves). I refer to the statscan site where the place where what you want is always one click away.

I’m willing to bet a great deal that the consultations were with existing long term customers – the type of people that have experience using the website. My suspicion is that if a broader consultation was conducted with potential users (university students, community groups, people like me and you, etc…) the numbers would tank. I dare you to try to use their website. It is virtually unnavigable.

Indeed, had made its website and data more accessible I suspect it the department would engage Canadians and have more stakeholders. This would have been the single most powerful thing it could have done to protect itself from cuts and decisions like the Long Form fiasco.

I know this post may anger a number of people at Statscan. I’m genuinely sorry. I know the staff work hard, are dedicated and are exceedingly skilled and professional. This type of feedback is never flattering – particularly in public. It is because you are so important to the unity, economy and quality of life in our country that it is imperative we hold you to the highest possible bar – not just in the quality of that data your collect (there you already excel) but in the way you serve and engage Canadians. In this, I hope that you get the support you need and deserve.