The Empire Strikes Back: How the death of GDS puts all government innovators at risk

The UK Government Digital Service(GDS) is dead. I’m sure it will continue to exist in some form, but from what I’ve read it appears to have been gutted of its culture, power and mandate. As a innovator and force for pulling the UK government into the 21st century, it’s over.

The UK government comms people, and the new head of GDS himself will say otherwise, but read between the lines of the stories as well as what former GDS people are saying, and it’s clear: GDS is dead.

These narratives are also aligned as to why. GDS was killed by what the Brits call “Whitehall.” This is short form for the inner and elite circles of the UK public service somewhat cruelly depicted in “Yes, Minister.” Their motive? GDS represented a centralization of IT control, and the departments — for whom GDS frequently found savings of tens of millions of pounds and provided effective online services on behalf of— didn’t like seeing their autonomy and budget sucked away by a group of IT geeks.

Losing GDS is a tragedy for the UK. But the downside isn’t limited to just the UK. It represents a blow to efforts to rethink and digitize governments around the world.


Because the debates over how governments work are not domestic (they haven’t been for a long time). GDS inspired innovators and politicians everywhere who were hungry for models of how governments could function in a digital age. Copycats sprang up around the world, such as the Digital Transformation Office in Australia and the United States Digital Service in the US at the national level, as well as others at the regional and local level. (For example, the Province of Ontario, which has a fantastic digital team, is currently hiring a Chief Digital Officer to lead a similar type of org.)

While working independently, these organizations share a common sense of mission and so trade best practices and lessons. More importantly, a few years ago they benefited from a massive asymmetry in information. They understood just how disruptive the innovation they were seeking to implement could be. And not from a technology perspective, but to the organizational structure and distribution of power within the public service.

As it became clearer to the rest of the public service in the UK just how far-reaching GDS’s vision was, and how much thinking digitally challenges the way senior public servants in places like Whitehall think… that asymmetry in knowledge and capacity didn’t diminish, but the asymmetry in awarenessand implications did. And so the center fought back. And it has far more power than any GDS might.

But it isn’t just in the UK. I suspect the existence of GDS and its global network has activated a global counter-movement among senior mandarins. Public servants are connected across international borders by shared alma maters, common international organizations and professional groups, cross-border projects, etc.… don’t think for a second that that global network hasn’t been activated (particularly among Treasury Board officials) to what some see as a new threat.

To be clear, this isn’t a GDS good, Whitehall bad piece. For anything to fail there is probably some shared responsibility. And assigning blame doesn’t really matter. What I care about it preserving what I and many others believe are important efforts to modernize governments so that the effectiveness of government, and trust in its institutions, are maintained.

So what does matter is, if you work for a digital service outside the UK, it is time to go double down on political cover and/or to reach out to the senior public servants around you and build some alliances. Because your Whitehall equivalent definitely has relationships with the UK Whitehall, and they are asking them what they think and know about GDS, and their story probably isn’t a good one.

The empire of traditional siloed bureaucracy is fighting back. You probably won’t beat it. So how are you going to engage it?

Canada’s Draft Open Government Plan — The Promise and Problems Reviewed


On Friday the Canadian Government released its draft national action plan. Although not mentioned overtly in the document, these plans are mandated by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), in which member countries must draft National Action Plans every two years where they lay out tangible goals.

I’ve both written reviews about these plans before and offered suggestions about what should be in them. So this is not my first rodeo, nor is it for the people drafting them.

Purpose of this piece

In the very niche world of open government there are basically two types of people. Those who know about the OGP and Canada’s participation (hello 0.01%!), and those who don’t (hello overwhelming majority of people — excited you are reading this).

If you are a journalist, parliamentarian, hill staffer, academic, public servant, consultant, vendor, or everyday interested citizen already following this topic, here are thoughts and ideas to help shape your criticisms and/or focus your support and advice to government. If you are new to this world, this post can provide context about the work the Canadian Government is doing around transparency to help facilitate your entrance into this world. I’ll be succinct — as the plan is long, and your time is finite.

That said, if you want more details about thoughts, please email me — happy to share more.

The Good

First off, there is lots of good in the plan. The level of ambition is quite high, a number of notable past problems have been engaged, and the goals are tangible.

While there are worries about wording, there are nonetheless a ton of things that have been prioritized in the document that both myself and many people in the community have sought to be included in past plans. Please note, that “prioritized” is distinct from “this is the right approach/answer.” Among these are:

  • Opening up the Access to Information Act so we can update it for the 21st century. (Commitment 1)
  • Providing stronger guarantees that Government scientists — and the content they produce — is made available to the public, including access to reporters (Commitment 14)
  • Finding ways to bake transparency and openness more firmly into the culture and processes of the public service (Commitment 6 and Commitment 7)
  • Ensuring better access to budget and fiscal data (Commitment 9, Commitment 10 and Commitment 11)
  • Coordinating different levels of government around common data standards to enable Canadians to better compare information across jurisdictions (Commitment 16)
  • In addition, the publishing of Mandate Letters (something that was part of the Ontario Open by Default report I helped co-author) is a great step. If nothing else, it helps public servants understand how to better steer their work. And the establishment of Cabinet Committee on Open Government is worth watching.

Lots of people, including myself, will find things to nit pick about the above. And it is always nice to remember:

a) It is great to have a plan we can hold the government accountable to, it is better than the alternative of no plan

b) I don’t envy the people working on this plan. There is a great deal to do, and not a lot of time. We should find ways to be constructive, even when being critical

Three Big Ideas the Plan Gets Right

Encouragingly, there are three ideas that run across several commitments in the plan that feel thematically right.

Changing Norms and Rules

For many of the commitments, the plan seeks to not simply get tactical wins but find ways to bake changes into the fabric of how things get done. Unlike previous plans, one reads a real intent to shift culture and make changes that are permanent and sustainable.

Executing on this is exceedingly difficult. Changing culture is both hard to achieve and measure. And implementing reforms that are difficult or impossible to reverse is no cake walk either, but the document suggests the intent is there. I hope we can all find ways to support that.

User Centric

While I’m not a fan of all the metrics of success, there is a clear focus on making life easier for citizens and users. Many of the goals have an underlying interest of creating simplicity for users (e.g. a single place to find “x” or “y”). This matters. An effective government is one that meets the needs of its citizens. Figuring out how to make things accessible and desirable to use, particularly with information technology, has not been a strength of governments in the past. This emphasis is encouraging.

There is also intriguing talk of a “Client-First” service strategy… More on that below.

Data Standards

There is lots of focus on data standards. Data standards matter because it is hard to use data — particularly across government, or from different governments and organizations — if they have different standards. Imagine trying if every airline used a different standard to their tickets, so to book a trip involving more than one airline would be impossible as their computers wouldn’t be able to share information with one another, or you. That challenging scenario is what government looks like today. So finding standards can help make government more legible.

So seeing efforts like piloting the Open Contracting Data Standard in Commitment 9, getting provincial and local governments to harmonize data with the feds in Commitment 16 and “Support Openness and Transparency Initiatives around the World” in Commitment Commitment 18 are nice…

… and it also makes it glaring when it is not there. Commitment 17 — Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act — is still silent about implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative standard and so feels inconsistent with the other commitments. More on this below.

The Big Concerns

While there are some good themes, there are also some concerning ones. Three in particular stand out:

Right Goal, Wrong Strategy

At the risk of alienating some colleagues, I’m worried about the number of goals that are about transparency for transparency’s sake. While I’m broadly in favour of such goals… they often risk leading nowhere.

I’d much rather see specific problems the government wants to focus its resources on open data or sharing scientific materials on. When no focus is defined and the goal is to just “make things transparent” what tends to get made transparent is what’s easy, not what’s important.

So several commitments, like numbers 3, 13, 14, 15, essentially say “we are going to put more data sets or more information on our portals.” I’m not opposed to this… but I’m not sure it will build support and alignment because doing that won’t be shaped to help people solve today’s problems.

A worse recommendation in this vein is “establish a national network of open data users within industry to collaborate on the development of standards and practices in support of data commercialization.” There is nothing that will hold these people together. People don’t come together to create open data standards, they come together to solve a problem. So don’t congregate open data users — they have nothing in common — this is like congregating “readers.” They may all read, but their expertise will span a wide variety of interests. Bring people together around a problem and then get focused on the data that will help them solve it.

To get really tangible, on Friday the Prime Minister had a round table with local housing experts in Vancouver. One outcome of that meeting might have been the Prime Minister stating, “this is a big priority, I’m going to task someone with finding all the data the federal government has that is relevant to this area so that all involved have the most up to date and relevant information we can provide to improve all our analyses.”

Now maybe the feds have no interesting data on this topic. Maybe they do. Maybe this is one of the PMOs top 6 priorities, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, the government should pick 3–8 policy areas they care deeply about and focus sharing data and information on those. Not to the exclusion of others, but to provide some focus. Both to public servants internally, so they can focus their efforts, and to the public. That way, experts, the public and anyone can, if they are able, grab the data to help contribute to the public discourse on the topic.

There is one place where the plan comes close to taking this approach, in Commitment 22: Engage Canadians to Improve Key Canada Revenue Agency Services. It talks a lot about public consultations to engage on charitable giving, tax data, and improving access to benefits. This section identifies some relatively specific problem the government wants to solve. If the government said it was going to disclose all data it could around these problems and work with stakeholders to help develop new research and analysis… then they would have nailed it.

Approaches like those suggested above might result in new and innovative policy solutions from both traditional and non-traditional sources. But equally important, such an approach to a “transparency” effort will have more weight from Ministers and the PMO behind it, rather than just the OGP plan. It might also show governments how transparency — while always a source of challenges— is also a tool that can help advance their agenda by promoting conversations and providing feedback. Above all it would create some models, initially well supported politically, that could then be scaled to other areas.


I’m not sure if I read this correctly but the funding, with $11.5M in additional funds over 5 years (or is that the total funding?) is feeling like not a ton to work with given all the commitments. I suspect many of the commitments have their own funding in various departments… but it makes it hard to assess how much support there is for everything in the plan.


This is pretty nerdy… but there are several points in the plan where it talks about “a single online window” or “single, common search tool.” This is a real grey area. There are times when a single access point is truly transformative… it creates a user experience that is intuitive and easy. And then there are times when a single online window is a Yahoo! portal when what you really want is to just go to google and do your search.

The point to this work is the assumption that the main problem to access is that things can’t be found. So far, however, I’d say that’s an assumption, I’d prefer the government test that assumption before making it a plan. Why Because a LOT of resources can be expended creating “single online windows.”

I mean, if all these recommendations are just about creating common schemas that allow multiple data sources to be accessed by a single search tool then… good? (I mean please provide the schema and API as well so others can create their own search engines). But if this involves merging databases and doing lots of backend work… ugh, we are in for a heap of pain. And if we are in for a heap of pain… it better be because we are solving a real need, not an imaginary one.

The Bad

There are a few things that I think have many people nervous.

Access to Information Act Review

While there is lots of good in that section, there is also some troubling language. Such as:

  • A lot of people will be worried about the $5 billing fee for FOIA requests. If you are requesting a number of documents, this could represent a real barrier. I also think it creates the wrong incentives. Governments should be procuring systems and designing processes that make sharing documents frictionless — this implies that costs are okay and that there should be friction in performing this task.
  • The fact that Government institutions can determine a FOIA request is “frivolous” or “vexatious” so can thus be denied. Very worried about the language here.
  • I’m definitely worried about having mandatory legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. I’d rather get it right once every 15–30 years and have it locked in stone than give governments a regular opportunity to tinker with and dilute it.

Commitment 12: Improve Public Information on Canadian Corporations

Having a common place for looking up information about Canadian Corporations is good… However, there is nothing in this about making available the trustees or… more importantly… the beneficial owners. The Economist still has the best article about why this matters.

Commitment 14: Increase Openness of Federal Science Activities (Open Science)

Please don’t call it “open” science. Science, by definition, is open. If others can’t see the results or have enough information to replicate the experiment, then it isn’t science. Thus, there is no such thing as “open” vs. “closed” science. There is just science, and something else. Maybe it’s called alchemy or bullshit. I don’t know. But don’t succumb to the open science wording because we lose a much bigger battle when you do.

It’s a small thing. But it matters.

Commitment 15: Stimulate Innovation through Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX)

I already talked about about how I think bringing together “open data” users is a big mistake. Again, I’d focus on problems, and congregate people around those.

I also suspect that incubating 15 new data-driven companies by June 2018 is not a good idea. I’m not persuaded that there are open data businesses, just businesses that, by chance, use open data.

Commitment 17: Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act

If the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act is that same as it was before then… this whole section is a gong show. Again, no EITI standard in this. Worse, the act doesn’t require extractive industries to publish payments to foreign governments in a common standard (so it will be a nightmare to do analysis across companies or industry wide). Nor does it require that companies submit their information to a central repository, so aggregating the data about the industry will be nigh high impossible (you’ll have to search across hundreds of websites).

So this recommendation: “Establish processes for reporting entities to publish their reports and create means for the public to access the reports” is fairly infuriating as it a terrible non-solution to a problem in the legislation.

Maybe the legislation has been fixed. But I don’t think so.

The Missing

Not in the plan is any reference to the use of open source software or shares that software across jurisdictions. I’ve heard rumours of some very interesting efforts of sharing software between Ontario and the federal government that potentially saves tax payers millions of dollars. In addition, by making the software code open, the government could employ security bug bounties to try to make it more secure. Lots of opportunity here.

The Intriguing

The one thing that really caught my eye, however, was this (I mentioned it earlier):

The government is developing a Service Strategy that will transform service design and delivery across the public service, putting clients at the centre.

Now that is SUPER interesting. A “Service Strategy”? Does this mean something like the Government Digital Service in the UK? Because that would require some real resources. Done right it wouldn’t just be about improving how people get services, but a rethink of how government organizes services and service data. Very exciting. Watch that space.

How the Media Should have Responded to Peter Thiel

Much ink has been spilled about Peter Thiel’s funding of various cases against Gawker. However, the discussion of whether he should or shouldn’t mostly miss the point. Nor do the responses give me much confidence in the media, who seem focused on playing victim, rather than focused on the incredible power they have.

Let me lay some groundwork, before articulating what I wish someone in the media would do.

First, Peter Thiel had every right to do what he did.

Second, if Gawker is guilty it suggests they did violated an individuals right and should pay. (I suspect they will win on appeal). There is such a thing as harassment and bullying. Being a “journalist” doesn’t give you a pass to print or say anything. Figuring out the balance is a debate we should continue to have in society.

Third, having third parties pay for lawsuits doesn’t strike me as an issue. There are real benefits to this and, it should not affect the material facts of the case and thus the outcome.

Fourth, everybody seems to dump on Gawker. I don’t read them, but can see why many people don’t like them. That said, they are important. I remember them for being the only media company willing to print a story about how Rob Ford, the former Mayor of Toronto, was smoking crack. This was very much in the public interest and it appears the Canadian media was too cautious to print it. There is value in this type of journalism.

Finally, while Peter Thiel had the right to fund these lawsuits, I think he’ll come to regret it. We may look back on May 25th as the moment the broader media began to recognize the powerful people in Silicon Valley are the elites of a new Gilded Age who increasingly shape and influence our lives.

So rather than bemoan and write articles questioning the ethics of Peter Thiel’s actions here’s what I wish the media would say:

“We agree with Peter Thiel, there should be smart, thoughtful and professional reporting. In addition, it is also clear that Silicon Valley is one, if not the, new centre of economic power in the world. Given its prominence in shaping our world and the power its elites have, we, the undersigned editors, are each assigning one of our most veteran news reporters to a news beat which will critically examine the people and companies reshaping the lives of America and the world. We look forward to the debate and conversations this reporting sparks about the direction of our economy, and its impact on our lives and democracy.”

At least the Guardian made the commitment before all this happened.

On Journalism, Government and the cost of Digital Illiteracy

Earlier today the CBC published a piece by Alison Crawford about Canadian public servants editing wikipedia. It draws from a clever twitter bot — @gccaedits— that tracks edits to wikipedia from government IP address. I love the twitter account — fun!

The article, not so much. How sad that the digital literacy of the CBC is such that this is deemed newsworthy. How equally sad that government comms people feel they need to respond to things like this.

The article is pretty formulaic. It pulls out the more sensational topics that got edited on wikipedia, such as one on hockey (aren’t we so Canadian!) and one sexual positions (obligatory link bait).

It then has an ominous warning letting you know this is a serious issue:

“It’s yet another edit in a string of embarrassing online encyclopedia changes made by federal employees during the work day.”

It then lists other well known scandals of public servants editing wikipedia you are almost certainly familiar with, such as The “poopitch” and the “ Rush incident.”

See the problem? The waste!

I do. I see the colossal problem of a media institution that does not understand digital or how to deploy its power and privilege. And of a government unable to summon a response appropriate in scale to these types of stories in the past.

Let’s break it down:

  1. This is Not a Problem

Look at @gccaedits. There are on average maybe 7 edits per day. There are 257,034 public servants in Canada not counting the RCMP or the military. Assume each edit comes from a unique individual 0.0027% of public servants are spending say 15 minutes editing wikipedia each day.

But how do we know employees weren’t doing this during their break? Can anyone of us say that we’ve never looked at a sports score, sent a tweet, conducted an elaborate prank, called a friend or read an article unrelated to our work while at the office? How is this any different? In what world is a handful of people making an edit to wikipedia an indication of a problem?

I’ll bet the percent of CBC employees making edits to wikipedia is equal or greater than 0.0027%. Will they share their IP addresses so we can check?

2. Articles Like This Create Waste

Did you know that because this article was written there is probably 1–10 people in government who spent hours, if not their whole day: investigating what the government’s policies are regarding wikipedia editing; calling IT and asking them to trace the IP addresses that made the changes; bringing in HR to call the person responsible or figure out consequences. Maybe the union rep got pulled from their normal job to defend the poor “offender” from this overbearing response. It is possible tens of thousands of dollars in time was spent “managing” this issue. That, right there, is the true waste

You know that those public servants were not doing? They were NOT finding ways to help with the fire in Fort McMurray or addressing suicides in First Nations communities or the millions of other PRESSING AND URGENT PROBLEMS WE NEED GOVERNMENT FOCUSED ON.

3. Articles Like These Diminish Journalism

It isn’t just about the cost to government having to deal with this. What other issues could have been written about today? What about something actually important that held the government to account?

Remember the other week when Amanda Pfeffer of the CBC wrote about how IBM won a $32M Ontario government contract to fix software IBM itself had created? More of that please. I don’t mind attacking public servants judgement, but let’s do on shit that matters.

4. Journalists and Managers Cooperate for Terrible Outcomes

This isn’t just the fault of the CBC. Governments need to learn the consequence to reacting — as opposed to opportunity of simply ignoring — these types of articles.

The reflexive response to articles like these for management is to grope for a “solution.” The end game is almost always expensive and Orwellian network monitoring software sold by companies like Blue Coat and a heap of other “security” tools. As a result public servants are blocked from accessing wikipedia and a range of other deeply useful tools on the web all while their computers become slower and more painful to use.

This is not a path to more effective government. Nor a path to valuable journalism. We can do better.

Okay, rant mostly done.

I feel bad for public servants who had a crappy day today because of this.

I feel bad for Alison Crawford — who has lots of important stories to her credit, and wasn’t even the first to write about this, but whose article is the focus of this piece. Please keep reading her stuff — especially on the judicial file.

Ultimately, this CBC could have been an amazing article about how the ‘poopitch’ and ‘Rush’ incidents were crazy over reactions and we need to figure out how to manage the public service in a digital age.

But it wasn’t. It was a cheap thrill. Less of that please CBC. More of the real journalism we desperately need.

Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic: mapping the drivers behind social media, companies and states in the public sphere

My own view of this space was initially shaped in 2004, after I first watched Laurence Lessig’s Free Culture OSCON talk. I became more conscious of the earlier debates (which continue today) around freedom and the online sphere.

Back then, I took comfort knowing we had a map of the terrain; we knew the players and their power. On the one side sat organizations like Mozilla and the leverage provided it by Firefox. On the other was Microsoft with its platform, marketing budget and customer base. As it turns out, a small, and effectively self-organized subset of the public (Mozilla & others) was able to tackle a de facto monopoly (Microsoft) and win.

Snowden (and Evgeny Morozov had much to say on this before Snowden) crystallized in the public’s mind that the real challenge to freedom on the internet is not companies, but states. China and Russia (and even the UK) offer a view into a dystopian world of persistent surveillance, while the NSA’s activities (and the US government’s response to his leaks) have destroyed people’s confidence in it as a model — particularly for non-Americans using US-based online services. In my mind, the biggest consequence of Snowden is that the United States functionally legitimized mass surveillance. While this prompted some governments to (publicly) recoil in horror, I suspect many more said “I’d like that too, thank you.” The post-Snowden era is defined by the state’s overt efforts to reassert control over the online space, particularly via company proxies. In the battle of the internet versus the state, today states want to win, and are comfortable saying as much publicly.

Probably not the right breakdown…

Given all this, for those of us who believe the internet should be a place where people can work, debate, shop and live without the threat of persistent surveillance, it is easy to assume certain actors are inherently good or evil. Governments must be evil — and the online public sphere, those organizing via social media must be good.

But nothing is ever that simple. And the good/neutral/evil moniker is almost never a fixed thing for a group of actors. So what is a more helpful frame?

No map is perfect, but as a simple tool to tease these differences out, I’ve enjoyed leveraging a current internet meme about good, neutral and evil. There are an endless number of these (the computer geek and The Office examples are particularly fun), but as I enjoy The Princess Bride, here’s an example:

Recreating a chart like this in the online space, I see countries as (generally) concerned with control, companies with money, and social media as chaotic. This description, albeit still imperfect, is at least accurate around what I believe to be the fixed variable:

Lawful Neutral and ChaoticThis in turn helps provide a frame for a conversation around how these actors behave. Take social media (a nebulous actor at best, I know). Several years back, Ethan Zuckerman, while talking about his then upcoming book, described the online social media environment as a giant unpredictable ball which people try to push or temporarily sway (at the time the Stop Kony movement was an example). I see him now as describing the public sphere, with its diverse interests, opinions, goals and ideas constantly clashing and in flux, as inherently chaotic. While this was true of an old bazaar, one element that make the online public sphere particularly chaotic is its ability to scale up in ways that were previously more difficult, and at a much faster pace.

However, there is nothing about the discussions in the public sphere — in person or online—that are inherently good. A public sphere conversation can be as much about promoting racism or doxxing activists as it can be about ending tyranny.

So here are some illustrative examples of where some actors are currently positioned in relation to some of the policy debates I think about.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.39.18 PMSome observations

First, I’m sure people will find reasons to disagree with the choices above — although the X axis is relatively fixed in my eyes, the Y axis is both more fluid and subjective. My goal is less about accuracy than to help provide a framework for thinking about this space and prompting conversation. If it causes you to debate where actors fall, or maybe where your own employer or country falls, great.

Second, it also outlines the challenge around some policy debates. In 2005 the focus of those who cared for freedom, privacy and self-expression on the internet focused (more) on companies. Post-Snowden, companies matter, but the real challenge is the state. There are legitimate reasons why a state would want to surveil a specific target: child pornography, terrorism, etc… what I think people fear about is the capacity for institutionalized mass-surveillance.

And by legitimizing such mass-surveillance, the US has prompted more actors in the “state/lawful” column to move downward towards (what I would define as) evil. More critically, these state actors are asserting significant pressure on the companies (the neutral column) to move downward to help them fulfill that objective.

The current strategy, as I see it, is to grow the “chaotic good” group as a way to try to first counterbalance the state and its efforts to coerce companies, but to ultimately shift the state upward to at least a neutral and ideally a “good” place. There is a world of lawful, limited surveillance. The question is how are we going to ensure it is created.

Third, your allies are probably not other actors in your column — so people who look, organize or act like you. Rather your allies are people in your row. So how do you connect, empower, leverage and enable them?

Fourth, one thing I like about the above is that social media and self-organization genuinely is chaotic. It is also often far better at protesting and “tearing something down” than it is at building something. Stopping a proposed law or seeking to destabilize a government is something social media has been effective at. Creating an alternative law, or forming a coherent government in waiting, much less so.

Finally, I am deeply conscious of several actors who aren’t listed and not sure where I would put them. EFF (lawful good?), Mozilla (Chaotic good?), W3C (true neutral — although the DRM stuff…?), so none of this is perfect.

Again, I’m playing around with this to try to build tools that simplify some complex thinking around players, organize the online sphere, and make it easier for people to access the conversation. Feedback, public or private, is always great.

Open Mandate Letters

The newly elected Government of Canada made its ministerial mandate letters available to the public last week. They are absolutely worth checking out both for their content and as a example of public disclosure/communication. I’ll talk about that latter part in a second, but let me first let’s discuss some background information and context.

From a content perspective the mandate letters are filled with a number of ambitious goals. Tzeporah Berman outlines a range of initiatives Ministers have been tasked to attend to from an environmental perspective (this may require access to Facebook). There are other goals to be excited by beyond the environment – the Justice Minister’s mandate letter in particular is worth looking at in detail. Again, it is an ambitious and exciting set of goals.

Some of you may ask: What IS a ministerial mandate letter? In Canada’s parliamentary system they have been how the Prime Minister and the Premier formally articulate the goals, priorities, specific task as well as general tone, for their ministers. In other words, they’re a way for the leader to tell cabinet ministers what he or she expects them to do (and presumably, how they will evaluate their performance).

Interestingly, while this is the first time I’m aware of that the federal government has made mandate letters open, it is actually part of an emerging trend. I believe this first happened in British Columbia under the current Premier (Premier Clark). They also formed part of the recommendations my colleagues and I proposed as part of the Open By Default report I helped draft at the request of Premier Wynn of Ontario. Premier Wynn, after winning the subsequent election, made her ministerial mandate letters public as well.

What I find fascinating is that mandate letters have not been made public before. Making them public has a number of advantages, both to the government, but also for more effective governance in general.

Making them public should help focus the government. It makes everybody, from the Minister, their advisors, down to every employee in the department that minister oversees aware of the minister’s goals. Such clarity is likely quite helpful and probably the most compelling reason for making them open. Governments are super tankers. The more the crew knows which way the ship is supposed to be going, the more individual decisions can be made to help ensure it’s course is accurate. And of course, any crew members that were planning on trying to push a ship in the direction they wanted to go, were likely to do so with or without seeing the mandate letters. At least now they can’t plead ignorance.

It also effectively communicates the government’s goals to the public. This makes it easier for actors outside of government – individual voters, NGO’s, industry groups and others – to better see where their priorities fit into the governments priorities. Some will be happy, others will be frustrated, but at least they know where they stand in a specific tangible and reference-able document.

Finally, mandate letters matters from a governance perspective. Mandate letters that veer far from campaign promises or from the political mandate the government received from voters will make for good fodder by opposition leaders. In addition, Ministers ability to execute against the goals and tasks laid out in their mandate letters are more visible to the public and, of course, the opposition. This form of accountability is likely to be helpful, spurring ministers to be more effective and on task while also granting opposition parties greater ability to point out problems.

Is it possible that a Minister could receive an additional “secret” mandate letter? Absolutely. But having mandate letters be completely secret strikes me as little better. And if a minister is working to complete some of their “secret” tasks, at least the public and opposition can hammer away at the minister asking them why they are not working on completing their stated “public” goals as outlined in the public mandate letter.