Tag Archives: OGP

The OGP, Civil Society and Power: Why #CSOday missed its mark

Yesterday in the University of London student union building, civil society organizations (CSOs) from around the world that are participating in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) gathered to prepare for today and tomorrow’s OGP summit.

There was much that was good about Civil Society Day (#CSOday). Old acquaintances reconnect and some new connections were forged. There were many useful exchanges of best practices and shared challenges and even some fun moments – such as singing led by transparency activists from the sub-continent who regularly put their lives on the line.

However with an evenings reflection I feel increasingly that the day represents a missed opportunity.

Not discussed – at least in the sessions I attended – was the more basic question of: Is this working for us? And if no, what should we do about it. Perhaps still more important was using the time to ask: How can the civil society participants use one another and the OGP to build power to advance their goals?

What – in retrospect – might have been the session most likely to trigger this conversation, the “What can civil society do to push ambition on Open Government?” did spark a brief discussion about if and how civil society organizations may exit the OGP if the process is not serving their needs. It also generated a brief acknowledgement that the OGP processes could be revisited. But ultimately the conversation felt unambitious. Something that, as an audience member, was as much my fault as anyones.

Indeed the entire day, the sessions felt like mere prologues/duplications of the sessions that are occurring during the OGP. Coalitions were not formed. Misunderstandings not broken down. Progress was made, but at was best iterative, not transformative.

Again, the CSO’s in my mind, need to start thinking about how the OGP can help them build power. I think, until now, we’ve believed that the secretariat and the processes would do that for us. It does – but likely not enough to generate the type of action many are looking for. Worse, the OGP is probably unlikely to have a single failure moment – rather the CSOs might slowly start drifting away quietly, if they feel it does not serve them. This makes figuring out more about how the OGP can serve CSO’s – particularly more local ones – all the more important.

I am perhaps, alone in thinking this. But if not, I offer one proposal about how we could build power.

A Brief Diagnosis

A core part of the problem is that while the heads of states can regularly generate media by simply meeting within the context of the OGP, it is much harder for civil society. I – and some I talk to – feel like this void should be filled by the steering committee – and particularly its CSO members. However, they appear constrained in what they can say and do. This manifests itself in three ways:

  • First, it appears the steering committee is unable to speak out against – and attract attention to – countries that are clearly moving backwards on their commitments.
  • Second, there appears to be limited capacity to challenge new entrants who cause many CSOs to feel uncomfortable. This includes Russia (who ultimately opted not to join) and Argentina, which many Latin American CSOs feel has been particularly egregious in systemically limiting freedom of expression. Membership has privileges, it endows on countries some social license and impacts the OGP brand in other countries – barriers to entry matter.
  • Third, the steering committee seems to have done little to attract international and/or national attention to Independent Reporting Mechanism reports – a third party report that assessed governments’ progress against their goals. Fears that the IRPs would be watered down seem to have been misplaced. According to many the IRPs are fair, balanced and in many cases quite critical. This is fantastic. The feat now is that poor IRP reports are not creating neither attention nor pressure for change.

It may not be the role of the steering committee to draw attention to these issues. I feel it is. Either way, it needs to be someone’s role. I want to be clear, I don’t believe the CSOs steering committee members have been negligent – I know they are diligent and effective CSO partners. Rather I believe there are some norms, and even hard structural barriers that prevent them from speaking out or pushing the steering committee as a whole to speak out on these issues.

Thus I suggest that the CSOs do the following.

A Suggestion

First – create a committee of highly respected CSO members that most members believe can, in specific circumstances, speak on behalf of the global CSO community. Normally I’d advocate that the members of each regional committee caucus until they decide on who that person can be. However, perhaps in the interim, we should just pick some that are appear to be widely respected. I’ve not consulted with any of these people – so mentioning them is just as likely to embarrass them – but I might nominate: Alison Tilley (South Africa), John Wonderlich (United States),  Emmanuel C. Lallana (Philippines), Felipe Heusser (Chile), Helen Darbishire (Europe). There is a imperfect list and is limited by people I’ve met and heard others speak about in positive terms. The key thing is to not get bogged down – at this time – with the selection process (at this time).

Second – a common mailing list where if, at any point, a national group of CSOs feel like their country is backsliding on its commitments or failing to live up to the OGP in a significant way, they could raise their concern with this committee.

Third – if, after some deliberation both within the committee and across the CSO community in general it was felt that there was a serious problem, this committee could issues statements on behalf of the CSO community. I could be wrong, but it would be nice to think that a collective outcry from the world’s leading CSO’s in transparency, governance and government reform might focus some (hopefully embarrassing) international media on the situation and put this issue on the agenda in various diplomatic circles. This committee might also bang the drum more aggressively in the international media about poor IRM reports.

I’ll be absolutely transparent about the goals here. Directly, the idea is to make the OGP process empower more CSO’s – hopefully the local one in particular. Indirectly however, the underlying hope to put pressure on the OGP governance and culture to remove any barriers that currently prevent CSO steering committee members from speak out as a group about various issues. If we succeeded in this, we could abandon this idea and concentrate on new ways to create power. And, if this had not come to pass, we could then formalize the committee and make it more permanent.

I don’t claim this model is perfect, and would invite feedback and or suggestions for alternatives. But I would love for the CSOs to starting thinking about how they can leverage the community the OGP has created to foster power to enable them to challenge governments more effectively.

Moreover, I think many governments would like it. Indeed, after floating this idea past one government official, they commented “We would like the CSOs to push as more. We want to do more and need to have a political environment in which that pressure exists. It helps us.” Perhaps not true of every government – but we have allies.

Access to Information, Technology and Open Data – Keynote for the Commissioners

On October 11th I was invited by Elizabeth Denham, the Access to Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia to give a keynote at the Privacy and Access 20/20 Conference in Vancouver to an audience that included the various provincial and federal Information Commissioners.

Below is my keynote, I’ve tried to sync the slides up as well as possible. For those who want to skip to juicier parts:

  • 7:08 – thoughts about the technology dependence of RTI legislation
  • 12:16 –  the problematic approach to RTI implementation that results from these unsaid assumptions
  • 28:25 – the need and opportunity to bring open data and RTI advocates together

Some acronyms used:

OGP Rules of the Game – Tactical Mistake or Strategic Necessity?

The other week Martin Tisne, the UK Policy Director at the Omidyar Network, as well as one of the key architects of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), posted a blog post expressing concern that Civil Society participants have misunderstood the OGP. Specifically Tisne is concerned that by focusing on entrance into the OGP rather than on the process which requires them to fulfill commitments towards greater transparency, NGOs are making a tactical mistake.

There is a tremendous amount of good insight in Tisne’s piece and it deserves to be widely read (and has been). There are however, important reasons civil society members spend as much time fretting about entrance into the OGP rather than purely on the process. And contrary to Tisne, I don’t think this is a tactical mistake – it is, in fact, both a tactically and strategically sound choice. Most importantly of all it is a reflection of how power is structured and distributed within the OGP.

For most activists fostering change is about a developing a set of carrots and sticks that can be used to cajole a reluctant actor into making the change you seek. One big carrot is participation in the OGP. This is good. It urges governments to make commitments and sign on to a process. However, it also has a serious impact on civil society’s power in the process. This is because it puts one major carrot – participation – at the beginning of the process while placing the stick – an assessment of how well a government is adhering to its commitments – at the end.

We shouldn’t underestimate the benefit participation confers on many governments. The OGP brand can become a sort of shield that protects a government against all sorts of accusations of opacity. “Of course we are transparent, we participate in the OGP” is an easy line for minister to counter to an uncomfortable question. And that is not the only way participation can diminish civil society’s power. Because a government’s necessarily requires civil society cooperation (they sign off on the commitments), it binds the two together. This means that, in some basic way, civil society has endorsed a – yet to be implemented – government plan. That can provide enormous political cover. In addition, OGP members may cause some citizens (e.g. potential transparency supporters and activists) to adopt a “wait and see” approach to judging their government, or to assume that a reliable process is in place and so they can focus on other issues. Rather than maintain or intensify pressure on a government, the OGP, in the short term, may diminish the power of civil society.

The aforementioned stick in the OGP process is the independent reporting mechanism. And it arrives at the end of the process, a couple of years after the country has joined the OGP. The hope is it provides an objective assessment that civil society members can use to shame and drive for change where the assessment is critical. The challenge, and the reason I suspect many civil society members remain nervous, is that this mechanism remains mostly untested. The OGP carrot and stick model becomes even more challenging if either a) the timeline for fulfilling commitments falls onto the term of the next government or b) a transparency issue arises that runs counter to the OGPs values but falls outside the government’s action plan.  This is what happened in South Africa and so calling for ejection from the OGP became rational (and even necessary) since both the short term carrot (OGP participation) and long term stick – are review of the implementation plan – provided civil society with no leverage or power against a law that distinctly ran counter to the OGPs principles.

Consequently, the threat of striping a government of its OGP membership is not only a rational choice for many civil society members, in some cases it may be one of the few sticks available to them during a period in the process when other forms of influence have been made less effective. Threats of ejection is this not only a rational choice, but possible the only choice.

Indeed, OGP architects should take heart of the fact that civil society members are relatively hawkish about who gets to enter the OGP. As previously mentioned, OGP membership itself denotes a degree credibility – particularly to an unaware public. Civil society members bound to the OGP are potentially more invested in protecting the credibility and brand of the OGP than either the member governments of the OGP secretariat is. This is because, try as the OGP might to not compare countries to one another, civil society members know the company you keep matters.

This is not to say that the OGP should only be a high achievers club. I think the public understands there are differences in capacity, and the entrance of a country like Libya that is making a difficult transition, is broadly seen as positive. However, the participation of an authoritarian government, or even a democracy infamous for jailing journalists, significant corruption and little transparency – damages the the OGP brand for all participants, and particularly for civil society members participating in the process. I can only imagine the Executive Director of a civil society group grimacing as someone asks incredulously: “you are part of a transparency group that includes (insert country with poor record of your choice)?” Civil society actors that are the most invested in protecting the OGP’s brand, if only to ensure that the IRM has credibility when it is finally launched in their country. As such, protesting the potential entry of a country is not a tactical mistake, but a highly strategic decision.

I say this not because Martin is wrong, especially about his four points – civil society participation, OGP stretch goals, relevance check and the IRM – these are indeed critical to the bedrock of the OGP. And I remain exceedingly hopeful about the OGP, although a great deal hinges on the IRM and the degree with which it empowers local civil society actors. Rather I think it bears reminding all involved that we need to continuously have explicit and productive conversations about power, and how it is structured and where it flows, when it comes to the OGP process, as this reveals a lot about why actors act the way they do, and could provide insights in how we can make the OGP more effective.

Launching the Canadian OGP Civil Society Discussion Group

Dear colleagues,

We are Canadians who have been actively involved with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process, including by participating in the OGP meeting in Brasilia in April 2012. The OGP is a joint government – civil society initiative to promote greater openness, participation and accountability in countries which have already attained a minimum standard of openness. Canada joined the OGP in September 2011.

Participation by interested stakeholders is a key feature of the design of the OGP. There is equal representation of civil society and government representatives on the lead body of the OGP, the Steering Committee. More importantly, a key mechanism of the OGP is for countries to develop and then implement Action Plans setting out their commitments for moving forward in terms of openness, participation and accountability. Governments are formally required to consult extensively with civil society and other interested stakeholders in developing and delivering on their Action Plans. Civil society will also play a key role in reporting on progress in implementing Action Plans, including through its participation in a parallel Independent Reporting Mechanism, which will present its findings on progress alongside those of the government.

In several countries, civil society groups and other stakeholders have formed networks or coalitions to work together to help ensure effective external input into the development, implementation and evaluation of Action Plans. We are proposing to set up such a network in Canada and we are proposing, as a first step, to establish a discussion list involving external (i.e. non-government) groups and individuals who have a demonstrated commitment to open government and who are interested in getting engaged in this important work. We envisage this as a loose and open network, through which anyone could propose discussions, ideas or action points relating to OGP. The network would have no voice or right of action of its own, and so participation in the network or the discussion list would not involve any obligations or engagements.

As an example of how the network might work, we note that, to date, Canada has not complied with its OGP obligations in the area of consultations. There was very limited civil society or other stakeholder participation in the development of the Action Plan, which Canada presented in Brasilia in April, and there has been little consultation since then on implementation of the Plan. The network might through the e-list discuss this issue and come up with actions which interested groups and/or individuals could participate in (always on a voluntary basis).

Please let us know if you are interested in joining such an initiative. To join, visit: http://lists.opengovcanada.ca/mailman/listinfo/ogp_lists.opengovcanada.ca and follow the subscription instructions. If you have any questions, please send these to admin@ogp.opengovcanaca.ca.

Thanks for your attention and interest in these key issues.

David Eaves,
Open Government Advocate and OpenNorth Board Member
Vancouver, BC

Michael Gurstein Ph.D.
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, BC

Toby Mendel
Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy
Halifax, NS

Some thoughts on the Open Government Partnership

It is hard to sum up what is happening at the Open Government Partnership this year. Whether it is the geography the conference covers (over 40 countries), the range of issues affected by openness, or the sheer number of people, there is a great deal to wrap your arms around.

Here are some reflections after a day and a half.

First is the sheer size of the conference. I’m told there are roughly 1200 registered participants. And you feel it. The buzz is louder, the crowds are bigger, and the number of people you don’t know is larger.

For one, governments get to see what others are up to, but more important are the connections made among civil society members. In many ways the OGP’s biggest benefit may be the way it builds capacity by enabling civil society organizations and individuals to learn from one another and trade stories.

The potential for this is particularly true (and remains unrealized) between civil society communities that do not tend to interact. There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.

Moreover, concerns among access to information types that the OGP will be dominated by technology issues feel overplayed, every “official” civil society representative I witnessed respond to a government presentation on its OGP goals was someone out of the Access to Information community, not the Gov.20/tech community. In a real sense, it is the access to information community that has greater influence over the discourse at the OGP and so concerns about the reverse feel, to some measure, overblown.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there are some very early debates about the future of the OGP, particularly in relation to its members. The articles of governance published yesterday by the OGP do lay out a process for removing members, but the criteria is vague regarding many issues the virtually all civil society members feel strongly about. The OGP has already demonstrated that the term open can capture the imaginations of a broad group of people and is a desirable trait to which governments want to be associated. In this regard it has some realized and a great deal more potential of being an important carrot that can provoke governments to make commitments around openness that they might not have otherwise make or prioritize. But the stick – which is essential to many civil society participants – remains still somewhat vague. And without it, it is hard to imagine the project working. If, once you are in the OGP, it does not much matter what you do, then the project loses a great deal of its meaning, at least, based on conversations I had, to many of its civil society participants.

And the tests on this issue are real and immediate.

South Africa – a OGP steerting committee member(!) – is in the process of enacting the “Protection of Information Bill” which effectively makes leaks illegal. If this can happen without any sanctions to its OGP status, then I suspect, the process loses a great deal of credibility. The participation of Russia raises similar questions. While it speaks volumes about the attractiveness of the OGP and Russia’s participation may help foster some domestic positive changes, to admit a country that is regularly accused of rigging elections and where journalists routinely go missing is likely to frustrate many who wish to use the OGP as a stick by which to hold their own governments to account. How worried will Mexico, Turkey or Canada be about reneging on its commitments if South Africa is allowed to pass draconian laws around access to information, or journalists are allowed to go missing in Russia?

To date, there are not heated arguments over the issue (at least publicly) and my sense is the topic is only just beginning to peculate for most civil society members, but given the immediate challenges South Africa and Russia pose to the OGP expect this issue to become much more heated, barring some clear resolution that satisfies the civil society participants.

Much less important, but still worth noting, is the simple fact that the logistics must be better next time. While the Brazilians were generous and warm hosts and, unlike in New York, civil society participants were thankfully not segregated from the government representatives, the failure to have internet access on the first day was unacceptable. It meant that anyone not on site could not follow along to the presentations and those at the conference could not engage those at home, or at the conference, online. For a conference about openness and engagement, it was an unfortunate reminder of even some of the more basic challenges still confronting us.

My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

Attached below is my submission to the Open Government Consultation conducted by Treasury Board over the last couple of weeks. There appear to be a remarkable number of submission that were made by citizens, which you can explore on the Treasury Board website. In addition, Tracey Lauriault has tracked some of the submissions on her website.

I actually wish the submissions on the Government website were both searchable and could be downloaded in there entirety. That way we could re-organize them, visualize them, search and parse them as well as play with the submissions so as to make the enormous number of answers easier to navigate and read. I can imagine a lot of creative ways people could re-format all that text and make it much more accessible and fun.

Finally, for reference, in addition to my submission I wrote this blog post a couple months ago suggesting goals the government set for itself as part of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Happily, since writing that post, the government has moved on a number of those recommendations.

So, below is my response to the government’s questions (in bold):

What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?

First, I want to recognize that a tremendous amount of work has been done to get the present website and number of data sets up online.


My advice on making data easier to engage Socrata to create the front end. Socrata has an enormous amount of experience in how to share government data effectively. Consider http://data.oregon.gov here is a site that is clean, easy to navigate and offers a number of ways to access and engage the governments data.

More specifically, what works includes:

1. Effective search: a simple search mechanism returns all results
2. Good filters: Because the data is categorized by type (Internal vs. external, charts, maps, calendars, etc…) it is much easier to filter. One thing not seen on Socrata that would be helpful would be the ability to sort by ministry.
3. Preview: Once I choose a data set I’m given a preview of what it looks like, this enables me to assess whether or not it is useful
4. Social: Here there is a ton on offer
– I’m able to sort data sets by popularity – being able to see what others find interesting is, in of itself interesting.
– Being able to easily share data sets via email, or twitter and facebook means I’m more likely to find something interesting because friends will tell me about it
– Data sets can also be commented upon so I can see what others think of the data, if they think it is useful or not, and what for or not.
– Finally, it would be nice if citizens could add meta data, to make it easier for others to do keyword searches. If the government was worried about the wrong meta data being added, one could always offer a search with crowd sourced meta data included or excluded
5. Tools: Finally, there are a large number of tools that make it easier to quickly play with and make use of the data, regardless of one’s skills as a developer. This makes the data much more accessible to the general public.


Finding data is part of the problem, being able to USE the data is a much bigger issue.

Here the single most useful thing would be to offer API’s into government data. My own personal hope is that one day there will be a large number of systems both within and outside of government that will integrate government data right into their applications. For example, as I blogged about here – http://eaves.ca/2011/02/18/sharing-critical-information-with-public-lessons-for-governments/ – product recall data would be fantastic to have as an API so that major retailers could simply query the API every time they scan inventory in a warehouse or at the point of sale, any product that appears on the list could then be automatically removed. Internally, Borders and Customs could also query the API when scanning exports to ensure that nothing exported is recalled.

Second, if companies and non-profits are going to invest in using open data, they need assurances that both they are legally allowed to use the data and that the data isn’t going to suddenly disappear on them. This means, a robust license that is clear about reuse. The government would be wise to adopt the OGL or even improve on it. Better still helping establish a standardized open data license for Canada and ideally internationally could help reduce some legal uncertainty for more conservative actors.

More importantly, and missing from Socrata’s sites, would be a way of identifying data sets on the security of their longevity. For example, data sets that are required by legislation – such as the NPRI – are the least likely to disappear, whereas data sets the the long form census which have no legal protection could be seen as at higher risk.


How would you use or manipulate this data?

I’m already involved in a number of projects that use and share government data. Among those are Emitter.ca – which maps and shares NPRI pollution data and Recollect.net, which shares garbage calendar information.

While I’ve seen dramatically different uses of data, for me personally, I’m interested mostly in using data for thinking and writing about public policy issues. Indeed, much has been made of the use of data in “apps” but I think it is worth noting that the single biggest use of data will be in analysis – government officials, citizens, academics and others using the data to better understand the world around them and lobby for change.

This all said, there are some data sets that are of particular usefulness to people, these include:

1. Data sets on sensitive issues, this includes health, inspection and performance data (Say surgery outcomes for specific hospitals, or restaurant inspection data, crime and procurement data are often in great demand).
2. Dynamic real-time Data: Data that is frequently updated (such a border, passport renewal or emergency room wait times). This data is shared in the right way can often help people adjust schedules and plans or reallocate resources more effectively. Obviously this requires an API.
3.Geodata: Because GIS standards are very mature it is easy to “mashup” geo data to create new maps or offer new services. These common standards means that geo data from different sources will work together or can be easily compared. This is in sharp contrast to say budget data, where there are few common standards around naming and organizing the data, making it harder to share and compare.

What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?

It is absolutely essential that all government records be machine readable.

Some of the most deplorable moment in open government occur when the government shares documents with the press, citizens or parliamentary officers in paper form. The first and most important thing to make government information easier to find online is to ensure that it is machine readable and searchable by words. If it does not meet this criteria I increasingly question whether or not it can be declared open.

As part of the Open Government Partnership commitments it would be great for the government to commit to guarantee that every request for information made of it would include a digital version of the document that can be searched.

Second, the government should commit that every document it publishes be available online. For example, I remember in 2009 being told that if I wanted a copy of the Health Canada report “Human Health in a Changing Climate:A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity” I had to request of CD, which was then mailed to me which had a PDF copy of the report on it. Why was the report not simply available for download? Because the Minister had ordered it not to appear on the website. Instead, I as a taxpayer and to see more of my tax dollars wasted for someone to receive my mail, process it, then mail me a custom printed cd. Enabling ministers to create barriers to access government information, simply because they do not like the contents, is an affront to the use of tax payer dollars and our right to access information.

Finally, Allow Government Scientists to speak directly to the media about their research.

It has become a reoccurring embarrassment. Scientists who work for Canada publish an internationally recognized ground break paper that provides some insight about the environment or geography of Canada and journalists must talk to government scientists from other countries in order to get the details. Why? Because the Canadian government blocks access. Canadians have a right to hear the perspectives of scientists their tax dollars paid for – and enjoy the opportunity to get as well informed as the government on these issues.

Thus, lift the ban that blocks government scientists from speaking with the media.


Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?

1. Honour Consultation Processes that have started

The process of public consultation is insulted when the government itself intervenes to bring the process into disrepute. The first thing the government could do to improve how it consults is not sabotage processes that already ongoing. The recent letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver regarding the public consultation on the Northern Gateway Pipelines has damaged Canadians confidence in the governments willingness to engage in and make effective use of public consultations.

2. Focus on collecting and sharing relevant data

It would be excellent if the government shared relevant data from its data portal on the public consultation webpage. For example, in the United States, the government shares a data set with the number and location of spills generated by Enbridge pipelines, similar data for Canada would be ideal to share on a consultation. Also useful would be economic figures, job figures for the impacted regions, perhaps also data from nearby parks (visitations, acres of land, kml/shape boundary files). Indeed, data about the pipeline route itself that could be downloaded and viewed in Google earth would be interesting. In short, there are all sorts of ways in which open data could help power public consultations.

3. Consultations should be ongoing

It would be great to see a 311 like application for the federal government. Something that when loaded up, would use GPS to identify the services, infrastructure or other resources near the user that is operated by the federal government and allow the user to give feedback right then and there. Such “ongoing” public feedback could then be used as data when a formal public consultation process is kicked off.


Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?

1. The UK governments expense disclosure and release of the COINS database more generally is probably the most radical act of government transparency to date. Given the government’s interest in budget cuts this is one area that might be of great interest to pursue.

2. For critical data sets, those that are either required by legislation or essential to the operation of a ministry or the government generally, it would be best to model the city of Chicago or Washington DC and foster the creation of a data warehouse where this data could be easily shared both internally and externally (as privacy and security permits). These cities are leading governments in this space because they have tackled both the technical challenges (getting the data on a platform where it can be shared easily) and around governance (tackling the problem of managing data sets from various departments on a shared piece of infrastructure).


Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative?

Some additional ideas:

Redefine Public as Digital: Pass an Online Information Act

a) Any document it produces should be available digitally, in a machine readable format. The sham that the government can produce 3000-10,000 printed pages about Afghan detainees or the F-35 and claim it is publicly disclosing information must end.

b) Any data collected for legislative reasons must be made available – in machine readable formats – via a government open data portal.

c) Any information that is ATIPable must be made available in a digital format. And that any excess costs of generating that information can be born by the requester, up until a certain date (say 2015) at which point the excess costs will be born by the ministry responsible. There is no reason why, in a digital world, there should be any cost to extracting information – indeed, I fear a world where the government can’t cheaply locate and copy its own information for an ATIP request as it would suggest it can’t get that information for its own operations.

Use Open Data to drive efficiency in Government Services: Require the provinces to share health data – particularly hospital performance – as part of its next funding agreement within the Canada Health Act.

Comparing hospitals to one another is always a difficult task, and open data is not a panacea. However, more data about hospitals is rarely harmful and there are a number of issues on which it would be downright beneficial. The most obvious of these would be deaths caused by infection. The number of deaths that occur due to infections in Canadian hospitals is a growing problem (sigh, if only open data could help ban the antibacterial wipes that are helping propagate them). Having open data that allows for league tables to show the scope and location of the problem will likely cause many hospitals to rethink processes and, I suspect, save lives.

Open data can supply some of the competitive pressure that is often lacking in a public healthcare system. It could also better educate Canadians about their options within that system, as well as make them more aware of its benefits.

Reduce Fraud: Creating a Death List

In an era where online identity is a problem it is surprising to me that I’m unable to locate a database of expired social insurance numbers. Being able to query a list of social security numbers that belong to dead people might be a simple way to prevent fraud. Interestingly, the United States has just such a list available for free online. (Side fact: Known as the Social Security Death Index this database is also beloved by genealogist who use it to trace ancestry).

Open Budget and Actual Spending Data

For almost a year the UK government has published all spending data, month by month, for each government ministry (down to the £500 in some, £25,000 in others). More over, as an increasing number of local governments are required to share their spending data it has lead to savings, as government begin to learn what other ministries and governments are paying for similar services.

Create a steering group of leading Provincial and Municipal CIOs to create common schema for core data about the country.

While open data is good, open data organized the same way for different departments and provinces is even better. When data is organized the same way it makes it easier to citizens to compare one jurisdiction against another, and for software solutions and online services to emerge that use that data to enhance the lives of Canadians. The Federal Government should use its convening authority to bring together some of the countries leading government CIOs to establish common data schemas for things like crime, healthcare, procurement, and budget data. The list of what could be worked on is virtually endless, but those four areas all represent data sets that are frequently requested, so might make for a good starting point.

Open Government Advocacy: The Danger of Letting Narrative Trump Fact

So I loath making this the first post of the new year, but here we go.

Today Canada.com published a story “Tony Clement vows innovative new open government, but critics point to poor record.” In it,  Jason Fekete the journalist responsible for the story, quotes a Democracy Watch spokesperson who sadly gets the facts completely wrong despite the fact that I warned Democracy Watch about their error a month ago after their press release caused similar errors to appear in a CBC story. I’ll outline why this is problem later in the post. Bur first the error.

In the article Fekete reports

Democracy Watch said it will appeal to the international open government group to reject Canada’s entry because the federal government failed to keep one of its required commitments to consult Canadians. Ottawa announced its online consultation one day after the watchdog complained about it.

This is, in fact, not true. To date, the government has not failed to meet its commitment. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (to which Democracy Watch responded as is aware) Democracy Watch accuses the government of failing because it believed consultations needed to be conducted before a November OGP meeting in Brazil. Unfortunately, the meeting in which Governments will be sharing their plans (and thus need to complete their consultations) will be taking place in Brazil in April. The OPG clearly states this on their website (under section 5). There was a meeting in November, so the confusion was understandable.

Of course, just to be safe, I did what the CBC and Postmedia should have done. I emailed the OGP secretariat to check. Within minutes they confirmed to me that the April meeting is the deadline for consultations and developing plans. What is more interesting to me is the no one from Democracy Watch, the CBC or Post Media bothered to simply email or call the OGP secretariat and confirm these facts. For the CBC and Postmedia this is a matter of laziness. For Democracy Watch, I’m not sure what is driving this willed blindness. Ultimately, I suspect that once they went public with their narrative, backing down would be seen as weakness and then government secrecy would win!

This is dangerous for two reasons.

The first is, it isn’t true. Government secrecy doesn’t win if Democracy Watch got its facts mixed up. I agree that this government has a lot to answer for around its willingness to disclose government documents. Be it documents around the procurement of the F-35 or the treatment of Afghan prisoners there are many cases where the lack of transparency has been blatant and, I believe, counter to the principles of democracy and open government. Conceding that the Government is still on track for its Open Government Partnership objectives does not diminish that fact. The only thing that misrepresenting the facts does is cause conservative leaning voters who believe in government transparency (an important constituency) to tune out of the debate and believe that Democracy Watch is simply out to score points against the government, not fulfill its mission.

The bigger reason I think it is dangerous is that it undermines the very thing that makes the Open Government Partnership an effective tool of open government advocates. I want to be clear. The Open Government Partnership is, in part, designed to empower advocates and help them compel their government’s to be more open. Used correctly it could be powerful. The fact that Canadian government signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a result, in part, of the fact that other OGP countries were signing on. We were able to use peer pressure to create an upward spiral. We can also use the timelines of the OGP to ensure the government carries out the pledges that it has made. And of course, there is an Open Government consultation that is currently taking place (please participate) that the government will have to share the results of with its partners – potentially giving us a way to verify that our input is being taken seriously. Indeed, participating OPG countries may even try to out do one another to demonstrate how seriously they are taking this input.

But when this tool is misused it gives the government license to ignore and write off critics. As someone who wants to use the OGP commitments as a carrot and stick to hold our government to account, stories like those I linked to above hurt our capacity to be effective.

This government does not have a great record of transparency. At the same time, there is a legitimate effort to create open government goals as part of the OGP, let’s let the process run its course (and criticize when they actually violate the process) and use the tools that are at our disposal constructively to maximize impact, rather than try to snare a quick headline that in the long term, could damage the open government movements credibility.

I certainly wouldn’t encourage Democracy Watch to petition the OGP to ask Canada to leave the partnership. I suspect the secretariat would be confused by the request. The deadline has not passed, indeed, most OGP countries are in the middle of their consultations right now.