The other week I received an invitation from the Canadian Standing Parliamentary Committee on Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics to come and testify about open government and open data on February 1st.
The Committee has talked a great deal about its efforts to engage in a study of open government and since February 1st is quite a bit away and I’d like to be helpful before my testimony, I thought I draft up some thoughts and suggestion for the committee’s strategy. I know these are unsolicited but I hope they are helpful and, if not, that they at least spark some helpful thoughts.
1. Establish a common understanding of the current state of affairs
First off, the biggest risk at the moment is that the Committee’s work might actually slow down efforts of the government to launch an open data strategy. The Committee’s work, and the drafting of its report, is bound to take several months, it would be a shame if the government were to hold back launching any initiatives in anticipation of this report.
Consequently, my hope is that the committee, at is earliest possible convenience, request to speak to the Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada to get an update regarding the current status of any open government and open data initiatives, should they exist. This would a) create a common understanding regarding the current state of affairs for both committee members and witnesses; b) allow subsequent testimony and recommendations to take into consideration the work already done and c) allow the committee to structure its work so as to not slow down any current efforts that might be already underway.
2. Transform the Committee into a Government 2.0 Taskforce – similar to the Australian effort
Frankly, my favourite approach in this space has been the British. Two Government’s, one Labour, one Conservative have aggressive pursued an open data and open government strategy. This, would be my hope for Canada. However, it does not appear that is is presently the case. So, another model should be adopted. Fortunately, such a model exists.
Last year, under the leadership of Nicholas Gruen, the Australian government launched a Government 2.0 taskforce on which I had the pleasure of serving on the International Reference Group. The Australian Taskforce was non-partisan and was made up of policy and technical experts and entrepreneurs from government, business, academia, and cultural institutions. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of its recommendations were adopted.
To replicate its success in Canada I believe the Committee should copy the best parts of the Australian taskforce. The topic of Canadians access to their government is of central importance to all Canadians – to non-profits, to business interests, to public servants and, of course, to everyday citizens. Rather than non-partisan, I would suggest that a Canadian taskforce should be pan-partisan – which the Committee already is. However, like the Australian Taskforce it should include a number of policy and technical experts from outside government. This fill committee would this represent both a political cross-section and substantive knowledge in the emerging field of government 2.0. It could thus, as a whole, effectively and quickly draft recommendations to Parliament.
Best of all, because of step #1, this work could proceed in parallel to any projects (if any) already initiated by the government and possibly even inform such work by providing interim updates.
I concede such an approach may be too radical, but I hope it is at least a starting point for an interesting approach.
3. Lead by Example
There is one arena where politicians need not wait on the government to make plans: Parliament itself. Over the past year, while in conversations with the Parliamentary IT staff as well as the Speaker of the House, I have worked to have Parliament make more data about its own operations open. Starting in January, the Parliamentary website will begin releasing the Hansard in XML – this will make it much easier for software developers like the creators of Openparliament.ca as and howdtheyvote.ca to run their sites and for students, researchers and reporters to search and analyze our country’s most important public discussions. In short, by making the Hansard more accessible the Speaker and his IT staff are making parliament more accessible. But this is only the beginning of what parliamentarians could do to make for a truly Open Parliament. The House and Senate’s schedules and agendas, along with committee calendars should all be open. So to should both chambers seating arrangement. Member’s photos and bios should be shared with an unrestricted license as should the videos of parliament.
Leadership in this space would send a powerful message to both the government and the public service that Canada’s politicians are serious about making government more open and accessible to those who elect it. In addition, it could also influence provincial legislature’s and even municipal governments, prompting them to do the same and so enhance our democracy at every level.
4. Finally, understand your task: You are creating a Knowledge Government for a Knowledge Society
One reason I advise the Committee to take on external members is because, laudably, many admit this topic is new to them. But I also want the committee members to understand the gravity of their task. Open Government, Open Data and/or Government 2.0 are important first steps in a much larger project.
What you are really wrestling with here is what government is going to look like in an knowledge economy and a knowledge society. How is going to function with knowledge workers as employees? And, most importantly, how is it going to engage with knowledge citizens, many of whom can and want to make real contributions beyond the taxes they pay and don’t need government to self-organize?
In short, what is a knowledge based government going to look like?
At the centre of that question is how we manage and share information. The basic building block of a knowledge driven society.
Look around, and you can see how the digital world is transforming how we do everything. Few of us can imagine living today without access to the internet and the abundance of information it brings to us. Indeed, we have already become so used to the internet we forget how much it has radically changed whole swaths of our life and economy from the travel and music industry to the post to political fund-raising and to journalism.
If today our government still broadly looks and feels like an institution shaped by the printing press it is because, well it is. Deputy Ministers and Ministers still receive giant briefing binders filled with paper. This is a reflection of how we deal within information and knowledge in government, we move it around (for good reasons) in siloes, operating as though networks, advance search, and other innovations don’t exist (even though they already do).
How our government deals with information is at the heart of your task. I’m not saying you have to re-invent government or dismantle all the silos and ministries. Quite the contrary, I believe small changes can be made that will yield significant benefits, efficiencies and savings while enhancing our democracy. But you will be confronting decades, if not centuries of tradition, culture and process in an institution that is about to go through the biggest change since the invention of the printing press. You don’t have to do it all, but even some small first steps will not come easily. I share this because I want you going into the task with eyes wide open.
At the very least we aren’t going first, our cousins both across the Atlantic, the Pacific and our southern border have already taken the plunge. But this should add urgency to our task. We cannot afford to stand by while others renew their democratic institutions while simultaneously enhancing an emerging and critical pillar of a new knowledge economy and knowledge society.