Tag Archives: cdnpoli

Proactive Disclosure – An Example of Doing it Wrong from Shared Service Canada

Just got flagged about this precious example of doing proactive disclosure wrong.

So here is a Shared Service Canada website dedicated the Roundtable on Information Technology Infrastructure. Obviously this is a topic of real interest to me – I write a fair bit about delivering (or failing to deliver) government service online effectively. I think it is great that Service Canada is reaching out to the private sector to try to learn lessons. Sadly, some of the links on the site didn’t work for me, specifically the important sounding: Summary of Discussions: Shared Services Canada Information and Communications Technology Sector Engagement Process.

But that is not the best part. Take a look at the website below. In one glance the entirety of the challenge of rethinking communications and government transparency  is nicely summed up.
proactive-nonedisclosure2

Apparently, if you want a copy of the presentation the Minister made to the committee you have to request it.

That’s odd, since really, the cost of making it downloadable is essentially zero. While the cost of emailing someone and making them get it back to you, is well, a colossal waste of my, and that public servants, time. (Indeed, to demonstrate this to the government, I hope that everyone of my readers requests this document).

There are, in my mind, two explanations for this. The first, more ominous one, is that someone wants to create barriers to getting this document. Maybe that is the case – who knows.

The second, less ominous, but in some ways more depressing answer is that this is simply standard protocol, or worse, that no one involved in this site has the know how or access rights to upload the document.

Noted added 6 mins after posting: There is also a third reason, less innocuous than reasons one and two. That being that the government cannot post the document unless it is in both official languages. And since this presentation is only available in (likely) english, it cannot be posted. This actually feels the most likely and will be teeing up a whole new post shortly on bilingualism and transparency. The number of times I’m told a document or data set can’t be proactively shared because of language issues is frustratingly frequent. I’ve spoken to the Language Commissioner on this and believe more dialogue is required. Bilingualism cannot be an excuse for a poor experience, or worse, opaque government.

In either case, it is a sad outcome. Either our government is maliciously trying to make it difficult to get information to Canadians (true of most governments) or they don’t know how to.

Of course, you may be saying… but David – who cares if there is an added step to geting this document that is slightly inconvenient? Well, let me remind you THIS IS SHARED SERVICE CANADA AND IT IS ABOUT A COMMITTEE FOCUSED ON DELIVERING ONLINE SERVICES (INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY) MORE EFFECTIVELY. If there was one place where you wanted to show you were responsive, proactive and reducing the transaction costs to citizens… the kind of approach you were going to use to make all government service more efficient and effective… this would be it.

The icing on the cake? There is that beautiful “transparency” button right below the text that talks about how the government is interested in proactive disclosure (see screenshot below). I love the text here – this is exactly what I want my government to be doing.

And yet, this is experience, while I’m sure conforming to the letter of the policy, feels like it violates pretty much everything around the spirit of proactive disclosure. This is after all a document that has already been made public… and now we are requiring citizens to request it.

We have a lot of work to do.

Doing Government Websites Right

Today, I have a piece over on Tech President about how the new UK government website – Gov.uk – does a lot of things right.

I’d love to see more governments invest two of the key ingredients that made the website work – good design and better analytics.

Sadly, on the design front many politicians see design as a luxury and fail to understand that good design doesn’t just make things look better, they make websites (and other things) easier to use and so reduce other costs – like help desk costs. I can personally attest to this. Despite being adept at using the web I almost always call the help desk for federal government services because I find federal government websites virtually unnavigable.  Often I find these websites transform my personality from happy affable guy into someone who teeters between grumpy/annoyed on the mild side, to raving crazy lunatic on the other as I fail to grasp what I’m supposed to do next.

If I have to choose between wasting 45 minutes on a website getting nowhere versus calling a help line, waiting for 45 minutes on hold while I do other work and then getting my problem resolved… I go with the latter. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time, but it is often the best option at the moment.

On the analytics front, many governments simply lack the expertise to do something as simple as Google analytics, or worse are hamstrung by privacy and procurement rules keep them from using services that would enable them to know how their users are (or are not) using their website.

Aside from gov.uk, another great example of where these two ingredients came together is over at Honolulu Answers. Here a Code for America team worked with the city to see what pages (e.g. services) residents were actually visiting and then prioritized those. In addition, they worked with staff and citizen to construct answers to commonly asked questions. I suspect a simple website like this could generate real savings on the city’s help desk costs – to say nothing of happier residents and tourists.

At some risk of pressing this point too heavily, I hope that my TechPresident piece (and other articles about gov.uk) gets widely read by public servants, managers and, of course, politicians (hint: the public wants easier access to services, not easoer access to photos and press releases about you). I’m especially hoping the good people at Treasury Board Secretariat in the Canadian Federal government read it since the old Common Look and Feel standard sadly ensured that Canadian government websites are particularly terrible when it comes to usability.

The UK has shown how national governments can do better. Let’s hope others follow their lead.

 

Playing with Budget Cutbacks: On a Government 2.0 Response, Wikileaks & Analog Denial of Service Attacks

Reflecting on yesterday’s case study in broken government I had a couple of addition thoughts that I thought fun to explore and that simply did not make sense including in the original post.

A Government 2.0 Response

Yesterday’s piece was all about how Treasury Board’s new rules were likely to increase the velocity of paperwork to a far greater cost than the elimination of excess travel.

One commentator noted a more Gov 2.0 type solution that I’d been mulling over myself. Why not simply treat the government travel problem as a big data problem? Surely there are tools that would allow you to look at government travel in aggregate, maybe mashed it up against GEDS data (job title and department information) that would enable one to quickly identify outliers and other high risk travel that are worthy of closer inspection. I’m not talking about people who travel a lot (that wouldn’t be helpful) but rather people who engage in unusual travel that is hard to reconcile with their role.

While I’m confident that many public servants would find such an approach discomforting, it would be entirely within the purview of their employer to engage in such an analysis. It would also be far more effective, targeted and a deterrent (I suspect, over time) than the kind of blanket policy I wrote about yesterday that is just as (if not more) likely to eliminate necessary travel as it is unnecessary travel. Of course, if you just want to eliminate travel because you think any face to face, group or in person learning is simply not worth the expense – than the latter approach is probably more effective.

Wikileaks and Treasury Board

Of course re-reading yesterday’s post I was having a faint twinge of familiarity. I suddenly realized that my analysis of the impact of the travel restriction policy on government has parallels to the goal that drove Assange to create wikileaks. If you’ve not read Zunguzungu blog post exploring Assange’s writings about the “theory of change” of wikileaks I cannot encourage you enough to go and read it. At its core lies a simple assessment – that wikileaks is trying to shut down the “conspiracy of the state” by making it harder for effective information to be transmitted within the state. Of course, restricting travel is not nearly the same as making it impossible for public servants to communicate, but it does compromise the ability to coordinate and plan effectively – as such the essay is illuminating in thinking about how these types of policies impact not the hierarchy of an organization, but the hidden and open networks (the secret government) that help make the organization function.

Read this extract below below for a taste:

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

This is obviously a totally different context – but it is interesting to see that one way to alter an organizations  is to change the way in which information flows around it. This was not – I suspect – the primary goal of the Treasury Board directive (it was a cost driven measure) but the above paragraph is an example of the unintended consequences. Less communication means the ability of the organization to function could be compromised.

Bureaucratic Directive’s as an Analog Denial of Service Attack

There is, of course, another more radical way of thinking about the Treasury Board directive. One of the key points I tried to make yesterday was that the directive was likely to increase the velocity of bureaucratic paperwork, tie up a larger amount of junior and, more preciously, senior resource time, all while actually allowing less work to be done.

Now if a government department were a computer, and I was able to make it send more requests that slowed its CPU (decision making capacity) and thus made other functions harder to perform – and in extreme cases actually prevented any work from happening – that would be something pretty similar to a Denial of Service attack.

Again, I’m not claiming that this was the intent, but it is a fun and interesting lens by which to look at the problem. More to explore here, I’m sure.

Hopefully this has bent a few minds and helped people see the world differently.

Broken Government: A Case Study in Penny Wise but Pound Foolish Management

Often I write about the opportunities of government 2.0, but it is important for readers to be reminded of just how challenging the world of government 1.0 can be, and how far away any uplifting future can feel.

I’ve stumbled upon a horrifically wonderful example of how tax payers are about to spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of money so that a ton of paper can be pushed around Ottawa to little or no effect. Ironically, it will all in the name of savings and efficiency.

And, while you’ll never see this reported in a newspaper it’s a perfect case study of the type of small decision that renders (in this case the Canadian) government both less effective and more inefficient. Governments: take note.

First, the context. Treasury Board (the entity that oversees how money is spent across the Canadian government) recently put out a simple directive. It stipulates all travel costs exceeding $25,000 must get Ministerial approval and costs from $5000-$25,000 must get Deputy Head approval.

Here are the relevant bits of texts since no sane human should read the entire memo (infer what you wish about me from that):

2.5.1 Ministerial approval is required when total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $25,000.

and

2.5.5 Deputy head approval of an event is required when the event has the following characteristics:

Total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $5,000 but are less than $25,000; or

Total hospitality costs associated with the event exceed $1,500 but are less than $5,000; and

None of the elements listed in 2.5.2 a. to g. are present for which delegated authority has not been provided.

This sounds all very prudent-like. Cut down on expenses! Make everyone justify travel! Right? Except the memo suggests (and, I’m told is being interpreted) as meaning that it should be applied to any event – including an external conference, but even internal planning meetings.

To put this in further context for those who work in the private sector: if you worked for a large publicly traded company – say one with over 5,000, 10,000 or even more employees – the Minister is basically the equivalent of the Chairman of the Board. And the Deputy head? They are like the CEO.

Imagine creating a rule at such a company like Ford, that required an imaginary “safety engineering team” to get the chairman of the company to sign off on their travel expenses – months in advance – if, say, 10 of them needed to collectively spend $25,000 to meet in person or attend an important safety conference. It gets worse. If the team were smaller, say 3-5 people and they could keep the cost to $5000 they would still need approval from the CEO. In such a world it would be hard to imagine new products being created, new creative cost saving ideas getting hammered out. In fact, it would be hard for almost any distributed team to meet without creating a ton of paperwork. Over time, customers would begin to notice as work slowly ground to a halt.

This is why this isn’t making government more efficient. It is going to make it crazier.

It’s also going to make it much, much, more ineffective and inefficient.

For example, this new policy may cause a large number of employees to determine that getting approval for travel is too difficult and they’ll simply give up. Mission accomplished! Money saved! And yes, some of this travel was probably not essential. But much, and likely a significant amount was. Are we better governed? Are we safer? Is our government smarter, in a country where say inspectors, auditors, policy experts and other important decision makers (especially those in the regions) are no longer learning at conferences, participating in key processes or attending meetings about important projects because the travel was too difficult to get approval for? Likely not.

But there is a darker conclusion to draw as well.  There is probably a significant amount of travel that remains absolutely critical. So now we are going to have public servants writing thousands of briefing notes every year seeking to get approval by directors, and then revising them again for approval by director generals (DGs), and again for the Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs), and again for the Deputy Minister (DMs) and again, possibly, for Ministerial approval.

That is a truly fantastic waste of the precious time of a lot of very, very senior people. To say nothing of the public servants writing, passing around, revising and generally pushing all these memos.

I’ll go further. I have every confidence that for every one dollar in travel this policy managed to deter from being requested, $500 dollars in the time of Directors, DGs, ADMs, DMs and other senior staff will have been wasted.  Given Canada is a place where the population – and thus a number of public servants – are thinly spread across an over 4000 kilometer wide stretch I suspect there is a fair bit of travel that needs to take place. Using Access to Information Requests you might even be able to ball park how much time was wasted on these requests/memos.

Worse, I’m not even counting the opportunity cost. Rather than tackling the critical problems facing our country, the senior people will be swatting away TPS reports travel budget requests. The only companies I know that run themselves this way are those that have filed for bankruptcy and essentially are not spending any money as they wait to be restructured or sold. They aren’t companies that are trying to solve any new problems, and are certainly not those trying to find creative or effective ways to save money.

In the end, this tells us a lot of about the limits of hierarchical systems. Edicts are a blunt tool – they seldom (if ever) solve the root of a problem and more often simply cause new, bigger problems since the underlying issues remain unresolved. There are also some wonderful analogies to wikileaks and denial of service attacks that I’ll save that for tomorrow.

 

 

Lying with Maps: How Enbridge is Misleading the Public in its Ads

The Ottawa Citizen has a great story today about an advert by Enbridge (the company proposing to build a oil pipeline across British Columbia) that includes a “broadly representational” map that shows prospective supertankers steaming up an unobstructed Douglas Channel channel on their way to and from Kitimat – the proposed terminus of the pipeline.

Of course there is a small problem with this map. The route to Kitimat by sea looks nothing like this.

Take a look at the Google Map view of the same area (I’ve pasted a screen shot below – and rotated the map so you are looking at it from the same “standing” location). Notice something missing from Enbridge’s maps?

Kitimate-Google2

According to the Ottawa Citizens story an Enbridge spokesperson said their illustration was only meant to be “broadly representational.” Of course, all maps are “representational,” that is what a map is, a representation of reality that purposefully simplifies that reality so as to aid the reader draw conclusions (like how to get from A to B). Of course such a representation can also be used to mislead the reader into drawing the wrong conclusion. In this case, removing 1000 square kilometers that create a complicated body of water to instead show that oil tankers can steam relatively unimpeded up Douglas Channel from the ocean.

The folks over at Leadnow.ca have remade the Enbridge map as it should be:

EnbridgeV2

Rubbing out some – quite large – islands that make this passage much more complicated of course fits Enbridge’s narrative. The problem is, at this point, given how much the company is suffering from the perception that it is not being fully upfront about its past record and the level of risk to the public, presenting a rosy eyed view of the world is likely to diminish the public’s confidence in Enbridge, not increase their confidence in the project.

There is another lesson. This is great example of how facts, data and visualization matter. They do. A lot. And we are, almost every day, being lied to through visual representations from sources we are told to trust. While I know that no one thinks of maps as open or public data in many ways they are. And this is a powerful example of how, when data is open and available, it can enable people to challenge the narratives being presented to them, even when those offering them up are powerful companies backed by a national government.

If you are going to create a representation of something you’d better think through what you are trying to present, and how others are going to see it. In Enbridge’s case this was either an effort at guile gone horribly wrong or a communications strategy hopelessly unaware of the context in which it is operating. Whoever you are, and whatever you are visualization – don’t be like Enbridge – think through your data visualization before you unleash it into the wild.

What do I think of the Canadian Senate?

Read Jennifer Ditchburn in the Globe and Mail – Senate stubborn on making information about chamber more accessible.

It is laughable about how hard the Canadian Senate makes it to access information about it. The lower house – which has made good progress in the last few years on this front – shares tons of information online. But the Senate? Attendance records, voting records and well, pretty much any record, is nigh high impossible to get online. Indeed, as Jennifer points out, for many requests you have to make an appointment and go in, in person, in Ottawa(!!!) to get them.

What year is it? 1823? It’s not like we haven’t had the mail, the telephone, the fax machine, and of course, the internet come along to make accessing all this information a little easier. I love that if you want to get certain documents about the operation of the senate you have to go to Ottawa.

Given the Senate is not even elected in Canada and has, shall we say, a poor reputation for accountability and accessibility, you’d think this would be a priority. Sadly, it is not. Having spoken with some of the relevant parties I can say, Senators are not interested in letting you see or know anything.

I understand the desire of the senate to be above the political fray, to not be bent by the fickle swings in electoral politics, to be a true house of “second sober thought.” And yet I see no reason why it can’t still be all that, while still making all the information that it must make public about itself, available online in a machine readable format. It is hard to see how voting records or attendance records will sway how the Senate operates, other than maybe prompt some Senators to show up for work more often.

But let’s not hold our breath for change. Consider my favourite part of the article:

“A spokeswoman for government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton said she was unavailable and her office had no comment. Ms. LeBreton has asked a Senate committee to review the rules around Senate attendance, but it’s unclear if the review includes the accessibility of the register.”

No comment? For a story on the Senate’s lack of accessibility? Oh vey! File it under: #youredoingitwrong

 

 

Help OpenNorth Raise 10K to Improve Democracy and Engagement thru Tech

Some of you may know that I sit on the board of directors for OpenNorth – a cool little non-profit that is building tools for citizens, governments and journalists to improve participation and, sometimes, just make it a little bit easier to be a citizen. Here’s great example of a simple tool they created that others are starting to use – Represent – a database that allows you to quickly figure out all the elected officials the serve the place where you are currently standing.

As a humble non-profit OpenNorth runs on a shoestring, with a lot of volunteer participation. With that in mind we’d like to raise $10,000 this Canada Day. I’ve already donated $100.

The reason?

To sponsor our next project – Citizen Writes – which, inspired by the successful Parliament Watch in Germany, would allow citizens to publicly ask questions both to candidates during elections and to representatives in office. The German site has, since 2004, posed over 140,000 questions from everyday citizens of which 80% been answered by politicians. More importantly such a tool could empower all back benchers, rebalancing power which is increasingly centralized in Canada.

I encourage you to check out our other projects too – I think you’ll find we are up to all sorts of goodness.

You can read more at the OpenNorth blog, or donate by going here.

The Transparent Hypocrisy of Ethical Oil – who is really laundering money

The other week the Canadian Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent accused Canadian Charities of “laundering money” because they accept some funds from outside the country. This has all been part of a larger effort – championed by Ethical Oil – to discredit Canada’s environmental organizations.

As an open government and transparency in politics advocate I find the whole conversation deeply interesting. On the one side, environmental groups have to disclose who funds them and where the money comes from. This is what actually allows Ethical Oil to make their complaint in the first place. Ethical Oil however, feels no need to share this information. Apparently what is good for the goose, is not good for the gander.

The media really only touches on this fact occasionally. In the Globe an Mail this hypocrisy was buried in the last few lines of a recent article:

Ethical Oil launched a radio ad Tuesday that will run throughout Ontario flaunting the proposal as a way to lower oil prices and create jobs.

Mr. Ellerton said he couldn’t immediately provide an estimate for how much the group is spending on the campaign. He also refused to reveal who funds the lobby group, other than to say: “Ethical Oil accepts donations from Canadians and Canadian businesses.”

The group has supported the Conservatives move to end foreign funding of environmental groups, including those that oppose the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipeline projects. Mr. Ellerton has campaigned to expose the funding behind those groups but said he could not shed more light on his own organization.

“We have an organizational policy not to disclose who are donors because we’ve faced lawsuits in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said, “and we don’t want to expose our donors to that kind of litigation.”

Of course, the the notion of what a “Canadian Business” means is never challenged. It turns out that many of the large “Canadian” players in the oil sands – those with corporate headquarters in Canada – are barely Canadian. Indeed, a recent analysis using Bloomberg data showed that 71 per cent of all tar sands production is owned by non-Canadian shareholders.

Consider the following ownership stakes of “Canadian” businesses:

Petrobank Energy Resources: 94.8% foreign owned

Husky Energy: 90.9% foreign (this one really surprised me!)

MEG Energy: 89.1% foreign

Imperial Oil: 88.9% foreign

Nexen: 69.9% foreign

Canadian Natural Resources Limited: 58.8% foreign

Suncor Energy: 56.8% foreign

Canadian Oil Sands: 56.8% foreign

Cenovus: 54.7% foreign

I think it is great that Ethical Oil wants greater transparency around who is funding who in the Oil Sands debate. But shouldn’t they be held to the same standard so that we can understand who is funding them?

If Ethical Oil and the government want to call it money laundering when a foreign citizen funds a Canadian environmental group, should we also use the term if a foreign (often Chinese or American) entity plows money into Ethical Oil?

The Oil Sands in Alberta is like Language Laws in Quebec… It's a domestic issue

This post isn’t based on a poll I’ve conducted or some rigorous methodology, rather it has evolved out of conversations I’ve had with friends, thought leaders I’ve run into, articles I’ve read and polls I’ve seen in passing.

As most people know the development of the oil sands is a thorny issue in Canada. The federal government is sweeping aside environmental regulations, labeling environmentalist groups terrorists and money launderers and overriding processes developed to enabled people to express their concerns.

What’s the public make of all this?

Polls generally seem to have the country split. Canadians are not opposed to natural resource development (how could we be?) but they are also worried about the environment (I’m not claiming enough to act). In this regard the Nik Nanos poll from March is instructive. Here most Canadians place environmental concerns (4.24 out of 5) ahead of economic prosperity (3.71 out of 5). There are of course polls that say the opposite. The normally reliable Ipsos Reid has a Canadian Chamber of Commerce poll which asks “it is possible to increase oil and gas production while protecting the environment at the same time.” As if Canadians know! I certainly don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I’d like it to be possible to increase oil and gas productions while protecting the environment at the same time. This, I suspect, is what people are really saying: “Yes! I’d like to have my cake and eat it to. Go figure out the details.” This does not mean it is possible. Just desirable.

So on a superficial level, I suspect that most Canadians think the oil sands are dirty. Their are of course the outlining camps: the die hard supporters and die hard opposers, but I’m not talking about them. Most Canadians are, at their core, uncomfortable with the oil sands. They know it is bad for the environments and may be good for the economy. That doesn’t mean they are opposed, it just doesn’t mean they aren’t happy either.

But here’s the rub.

I think most Canadians feel like the oil sands is an Alberta issue. Ultimately, many don’t care if it is dirty, many don’t care if it doesn’t benefit them. So long as the issue is confined within Alberta’s borders and it’s an Alberta problem/opportunity then they are happy to give them a free hand. I’ve been comparing it to French Language laws in Quebec. You’d be hard pressed to find many Canadians who strongly agree with them. They understand them. They get why they matter to Quebec. And frankly, they’ve given up caring. As long as the issue is confined within Quebec it’s “domestic politics” and they accept it now as fact.

Of course, the moment the issue stretches outside of Alberta, the gloves are off. Take the pipeline proposal for example. I suspect that support for the Gateway pipeline, especially after the Keystone pipeline is approved, will likely disintegrate. Barbara Yaffe beat me to the punch with her column “What’s in Pipeline Expansion for BC?” which articulated exactly where I think BC is going. Already opinion polls show opposition to the pipeline is growing. Anyone knows that the moment a tanker strikes ground off the coast of BC you have a $1B problem on your hand. Most BCers are beginning to ask why they should put their tourism and fishing industries at risk and be left footing the bill for environmental damage on oil that Alberta is making money off of? A couple hundred jobs a year in benefits isn’t going to cut it.

What’s worse is that it is almost impossible to imagine that Keystone won’t get approved this time around. As a result, Alberta will have it’s pipeline out and so the major source of concern – a way to get the oil out – will have been satisfied. Building a pipeline through BC is now no longer essential. It is a bonus. It is all about getting a extra $30 premium a barrel and, of course, satisfying all those Chinese investors. BCers will be even more confused about why they have to absorb the environmental risks so that their neighbor can get rich.

This is also why the provincial NDP’s formal opposition to the pipeline is clever. While it cites environmental concerns and does use tough language it does not draw a hard line in the sand. Rather, it concludes “that the risks of this project (the Northern Gateway Pipeline) far outweigh its benefits.” Implicit in this statement is that if the benefits were to increase – if say, Alberta were to pay a percentage of the royalties to BC – then their position could change as well. In other words – you want us to accommodate your language politics in our province? We may so “no” anyway, but if we say yes… it is going to cost you.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that Alberta’s history of playing well with other provinces on issues of national interest is not… spectacular (remember the Alberta firewall?). Alberta has often wanted to go it alone – that is, indeed, part of its brand. I suspect most of the rest of the country has neither the inclination nor the care to stop them, just like they didn’t with Quebec. But that doesn’t mean they are going to get a helping hand either.

 

 

 

Open Data Movement is a Joke?

Yesterday, Tom Slee wrote a blog post called “Why the ‘Open Data Movement’ is a Joke,” which – and I say this as a Canadian who understands the context in which Slee is writing – is filled with valid complaints about our government, but which I feel paints a flawed picture of the open data movement.

Evgeny Morozov tweeted about the post yesterday, thereby boosting its profile. I’m a fan of Evgeny. He is an exceedingly smart and critical thinker on the intersection of technology and politics. He is exactly what our conversation needs (unlike, say, Andrew Keen). I broadly felt his comments (posted via his Twitter stream) were both on target: we need to think critically about open data; and lacked nuance: it is possible for governments to simultaneously become more open and more closed on different axis. I write all this confident that Evgeny may turn his ample firepower on me, but such is life.

So, a few comments on Slee’s post:

First, the insinuation that the open data movement is irretrievably tainted by corporate interests is so over the top it is hard to know where to begin to respond. I’ve been advocating for open data for several years in Canada. Frankly, it would have been interesting and probably helpful if a large Canadian corporation (or even a medium sized one) took notice. Only now, maybe 4-5 years in, are they even beginning to pay attention. Most companies don’t even know what open data is.

Indeed, the examples of corporate open data “sponsors” that Slee cites are U.S. corporations, sponsoring U.S. events (the Strata conference) and nonprofits (Code for America – of which I have been engaged with). Since Slee is concerned primarily with the Canadian context, I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on how these examples compare to Canadian corporate involvement in open data initiatives – or even foreign corporations’ involvement in Canadian open data.

And not to travel too far down the garden path on this, but it’s worth noting that the corporations that have jumped on the open data bandwagon in the US often have two things in common: First, their founders are bona fide geeks, who in my experience are both interested in hard data as an end unto itself (they’re all about numbers and algorithms), and want to see government-citizen interactions – and internal governmental interactions, too – made better and more efficient. Second, of course they are looking after their corporate interests, but they know they are not at the forefront of the open data movement itself. Their sponsorship of various open data projects may well have profit as one motive, but they are also deeply interested in keeping abreast of developments in what looks to be a genuine Next Big Thing. For a post the Evgeny sees as being critical of open data, I find all this deeply uncritical. Slee’s post reads as if anything that is touched by a corporation is tainted. I believe there are both opportunities and risks. Let’s discuss them.

So, who has been advocating for open data in Canada? Who, in other words, comprises the “open data movement” that Slee argues doesn’t really exist – and that “is a phrase dragged out by media-oriented personalities to cloak a private-sector initiative in the mantle of progressive politics”? If you attend one of the hundreds of hackathons that have taken place across Canada over the past couple years – like those that have happened in Vancouver, Regina, Victoria, Montreal and elsewhere – you’ll find they are generally organized in hackspaces and by techies interested in ways to improve their community. In Ottawa, which I think does the best job, they can attract hundreds of people, many who bring spouses and kids as they work on projects they think will be helpful to their community. While some of these developers hope to start businesses, many others try to tackle issues of public good, and/or try to engage non-profits to see if there is a way they can channel their talent and the data. I don’t for a second pretend that these participants are a representative cross-section of Canadians, but by and large the profile has been geek, technically inclined, leaning left, and socially minded. There are many who don’t fit that profile, but that is probably the average.

Second, I completely agree that this government has been one of the most – if not the most – closed and controlling in Canada’s history. I, like many Canadians, echo Slee’s frustration. What’s worse, is I don’t see things getting better. Canadian governments have been getting more centralized and controlling since at least Trudeau, and possibly earlier (Indeed, I believe polling and television have played a critical role in driving this trend). Yes, the government is co-opting the language of open data in an effort to appear more open. All governments co-opt language to appear virtuous. Be it on the environment, social issues or… openness, no government is perfect and indeed, most are driven by multiple, contradictory goals.

As a member of the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel I wrestle with this challenge constantly. I’m try hard to embed some openness into the DNA of government. I may fail. I know that I won’t succeed in all ways, but hopefully I can move the rock in the right direction a little bit. It’s not perfect, but then it’s pretty rare that anything involving government is. In my (unpaid, advisory, non-binding) role I’ve voiced that the government should provide the Access to Information Commissioner with a larger budget (they cut it) and that they enable government scientists to speak freely (they have not so far). I’ve also advocated that they should provide more open data. There they have, including some data sets that I think are important – such as aid data (which is always at risk of being badly spent). For some, it isn’t enough. I’d like for there to be more open data sets available, and I appreciate those (like Slee – who I believe is writing from a place of genuine care and concern) who are critical of these efforts.

But, to be clear, I would never equate open government data as being tantamount to solving the problems of a restrictive or closed government (and have argued as much here). Just as an authoritarian regime can run on open-source software, so too might it engage in open data. Open data is not the solution for Open Government (I don’t believe there is a single solution, or that Open Government is an achievable state of being – just a goal to pursue consistently), and I don’t believe anyone has made the case that it is. I know I haven’t. But I do believe open data can help. Like many others, I believe access to government information can lead to better informed public policy debates and hopefully some improved services for citizens (such as access to transit information). I’m not deluded into thinking that open data is going to provide a steady stream of obvious “gotcha moments” where government malfeasance is discovered, but I am hopeful that government data can arm citizens with information that the government is using to inform its decisions so that they can better challenge, and ultimately help hold accountable, said government.

Here is where I think Evgeny’s comments on the problem with the discourse around “open” are valid. Open Government and Open Data should not be used interchangeably. And this is an issue Open Government and Open Data advocates wrestle with. Indeed, I’ve seen a great deal of discussion and reflection come as a result of papers such as this one.

Third, the arguments around StatsCan all feel deeply problematic. I say this as the person who wrote the first article (that I’m aware of) about the long form census debacle in a major media publication and who has been consistently and continuously critical of it. This government has had a dislike for Statistics Canada (and evidence) long before open data was in their vocabulary, to say nothing of a policy interest. StatsCan was going to be a victim of dramatic cuts regardless of Canada’s open data policy – so it is misleading to claim that one would “much rather have a fully-staffed StatsCan charging for data than a half-staffed StatsCan providing it for free.” (That quote comes from Slee’s follow-up post, here.) That was never the choice on offer. Indeed, even if it had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. The total cost of making StatsCan data open is said to have been $2 million; this is a tiny fraction of the payroll costs of the 2,500 people they are looking to lay off.

I’d actually go further than Slee here, and repeat something I say all the time: data is political. There are those who, naively, believed that making data open would depoliticize policy development. I hope there are situations where this might be true, but I’ve never taken that for granted or assumed as much: Quite the opposite. In a world where data increasingly matters, it is increasingly going to become political. Very political. I’ve been saying this to the open data community for several years, and indeed was a warning that I made in the closing part of my keynote at the Open Government Data Camp in 2010. All this has, in my mind, little to do with open data. If anything, having data made open might increase the number of people who are aware of what is, and is not, being collected and used to inform public policy debates. Indeed, if StatsCan had made its data open years ago it might have had a larger constituency to fight on its behalf.

Finally, I agree with the Nat Torkington quote in the blog post:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

Moreover, it is possible for a policy to have two different possible drivers. It can even have multiple contradictory drivers simultaneously. In Canada, my assessment is that the government doesn’t have this level of sophistication around its thinking on this file, a conclusion I more or less wrote when assessing their Open Government Partnership commitments. I have no doubt that the conservatives would like to turn government provided services over to the private sector, and open data has so far not been part of that strategy. In either case, there is, in my mind, a policy infrastructure that needs to be in place to pursue either of these goals (such as having a data governance structure in place). But from a more narrow open data perspective, my own feeling is that making the data open has benefits for public policy discourse, public engagement, and economic reasons. Indeed, making more government data available may enable citizens to fight back against policies they feel are unacceptable. You may not agree with all the goals of the Canadian government – as someone who has written at least 30 opeds in various papers outlining problems with various government policies, neither do I – but I see the benefits of open data as real and worth pursuing, so I advocate for it as best I can.

So in response to the opening arguments about the open data movement…

It’s not a movement, at least in any reasonable political or cultural sense of the word.

We will have to agree to disagree. My experience is quite the opposite. It is a movement. One filled with naive people, with skeptics, with idealists focused on accountability, developers hoping to create apps, conservatives who want to make government smaller and progressives who want to make it more responsive and smarter. There was little in the post that persuaded me there wasn’t a movement. What I did hear is that the author didn’t like some parts of the movement and its goals. Great! Please come join the discussion; we’d love to have you.

It’s doing nothing for transparency and accountability in government,

To say it is doing nothing for transparency seems problematic. I need only cite one data set now open to say that isn’t true. And certainly publication of aid data, procurement data, publications of voting records and the hansard are examples of places where it may be making government more transparent and accountable. What I think Slee is claiming is that open data isn’t transforming the government into a model of transparency and accountability, and he’s right. It isn’t. I don’t think anyone claimed it would. Nor do I think the public has been persuaded that because it does open data, the government is somehow open and transparent. These are not words the Canadian public associates with this government no matter what it does on this file.

It’s co-opting the language of progressive change in pursuit of what turns out to be a small-government-focused subsidy for industry.

There are a number of sensible, critical questions in Slee’s blog post. But this is a ridiculous charge. Prior to the data being open, you had an asset that was paid for by taxpayer dollars, then charged for at a premium that created a barrier to access. Of course, this barrier was easiest to surmount for large companies and wealthy individuals. If there was a subsidy for industry, it was under the previous model, as it effectively had the most regressive tax for access of any government service.

Indeed, probably the biggest beneficiaries of open data so far have been Canada’s municipalities, which have been able to gain access to much more data than they previously could, and have saved a significant amount of money (Canadian municipalities are chronically underfunded.) And of course, when looking at the most downloaded data sets from the site, it would appear that non-profits and citizens are making good use of them. For example, the 6th most downloaded was the Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada used by many environmental groups; number 8 was weather data; 9th was Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory, used most frequently to calculate Green House Gas emissions; and 10th the Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus – used, I suspect, to decode the machinery of government. Most of the other top downloaded data sets related to immigration, used it appears, to help applicants. Hard to see the hand of big business in all this, although if open data helped Canada’s private sector become more efficient and productive, I would hardly complain.

If your still with me, thank you, I know that was a long slog.