Open Government Consultation, Twitter Townhalls & Doing Advocacy Wrong

Earlier this week the Canadian Federal Government launched its consultation process on Open Government. This is an opportunity for citizens to comment and make suggestions around what data the federal government should make open and what information it should share, and provide feedback on how it can consult more effectively with Canadians. The survey (which, handily, can be saved midway through completion) contains a few straightforward multiple choice questions and about eight open ended questions which I’ve appended to the end of this post so that readers can reflect upon them before starting to fill out the form.

In addition to the online consultations, Tony Clement – the Minister responsible for the Open Government file – will host a Twitter townhall on Open Government this Thursday (December 15). Note! The townhall will be hosted by the treasury board twitter account @TBS_Canada (English) and @SCT_Canada (French) not Minister Clement’s personal (and better known) twitter account. The townhall will first take place in French from 4-4:45pm EST using the hashtags #parlonsgouvert and then in English from 5-5:45 EST using the hashtag #opengovchat.

Some of you may have also noticed that Democracy Watch issued a strongly worded press release last week with the (somewhat long) headline “Federal Conservatives break all of their international Open Government Partnership commitments by failing to consult with Canadians about their draft action plan before meeting in Brazil this week.” This seems to have prompted the CBC to write this article.

Now, to be clear, I’m a strong advocate for Open Government, and there are plenty of things for which one could be critical about this government for not being open about. However, to be credible – especially around issues of transparency and disclosure – one must be factual. And Democracy Watch did more than just stretch the truth. The simple fact is, that while I too wish the government’s consultations had happened sooner, this does not mean it has broken all of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Indeed, it hasn’t broken any of its commitments. A careful read of the Open Government Partnership requirements would reveal that the recent December meeting was to share drafts plans (including the plans by which to consult). The deadline that Democracy Watch is screaming about does not occur until March of 2012.

It would have been fair to say the government has been slow in fulfilling its commitments, but to say it has broken any of them is flatly not true. Indeed the charge feels particularly odd given that in the past two weeks the government signed on greater aid transparency via IATI and released an additional 4000 data sets, including virtually all of StatsCan’s data, giving Canadian citizens, non profits, other levels of governments and companies access to important data sets relevant for social, economic and academic purposes.

Again, there are plenty of things one could talk about when it comes to transparency and the government.  Yes, the consultation could have gotten off the ground faster. And yes, there is much more to done. But this screaming headline is somewhat off base. Publishing it damages both the credibility of the organization making the charge, and risk hurting the credible of open government advocates in general.

 

List of Open Ended Questions in the Open Government Consultation.

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

2. What types of open data sets would be of interest to you? Please pick up to three categories below and specify what data would be of interest to you.

3. How would you use or manipulate this data?

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

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

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

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

 

3 thoughts on “Open Government Consultation, Twitter Townhalls & Doing Advocacy Wrong

  1. Duff Conacher

    You should check your facts David before you slander Democracy Watch with false claims.  As it sets out clearly on the Open Government Partnership (OGP) website — http://www.opengovpartnership.org/new-country-guidance — the process the federal government committed to in September 2011 was to, first, “Governments should undertake broad public consultation to inform their
    OGP commitments, consistent with the principles of consultation in the
    Open Government Partnership (www.opengovpartnership.org/ogp-participation). The consultation process should begin soon after the government has expressed its intent to join OGP”.  And then, “Make use of the networking mechanism to connect with other governments
    (peer to peer) and other relevant expertise and service providers (NGO
    and private sector) in order to develop ideas for commitments and to
    gather expertise for implementation.”  And then, “Based on input from public consultations and government discussions,
    governments should begin drafting the country commitments that will be
    presented in the action plan.”   And then, at the OGP meeting that took place in Brazil on December 7-8, “Come prepared to share your draft commitments, reflect on your
    government’s experiences to date, and to engage other countries on their
    draft plans.”

    The federal Conservatives did not begin the public consultation soon after they signed on to OGP on Sept. 19th, they began it on Dec. 6th and it will not be completed until Jan. 16th (so they broke that commitment).  They also did not make use of the networking mechanism (so they broke that commitment).  They also did not develop a draft plan based on input from public consultations (so they broke that commitment).  They also did not go to Brazil “prepared to share” their draft commitments (so they broke that commitment).  In fact, the government has not released any draft plan (all they have done is set out a list of the three obvious areas (data, information, dialogue) that are involved in open government on a website.

    So, in fact, it is flatly true that the federal Conservatives have broken all of their OGP commitments, which is exactly what Democracy Watch’s news release stated.

    I know it is too much to expect you to apologize for slandering Democracy Watch — or maybe you will do the right thing and apologize.

    But more importantly, if you are actually an open government advocate as you claim (as opposed to just an open data advocate) one can only hope you will not claim that the federal Conservatives have done anything significant if, by the time their final OGP plan is due in March 2012, all they do is commit to make datasets that were available in the past available in an easier to use format, and make a registry of access-to-information requests that they cut a few years ago available again, and maintain an online consultation website that the Liberals set up in 2004.

    Because if you claim that these are significant open government changes (when, in fact, they are nominal open data moves), you will have to explain to me and your blog readers why you would applaud a government that (through breaking promises it made in the 2006 election) continues to allow to be legal the following things: secret, unlimited donations to some political candidates; secret, unethical lobbying; excessive secrecy overall (because of a loophole-filled Access to Information Act); secret expenses by MPs; participation by the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, their staff, senior government officials, MPs, Senators and their staff, in decisions that affect their personal financial interests, and; abuse of whistleblowers reporting government wrongdoing, and; very weak, ineffective enforcement of federal ethics, lobbying, transparency and whistleblower protection laws.

    And you will have to explain why, given that the OGP requires governments to make commitments to strengthen all of these laws, and the enforcement of these laws, in their OGP plans, you would applaud the federal Conservatives for failing to make these commitments in their OGP plan.

    So again, the Conservatives have broken all of their OGP commitments so far, will they continue to break them all — or will they do the right thing and make clear commitments in all of the areas set out in Democracy Watch’s news release at:

    Oh, and finally, just to be clear, please confirm whether or not you have done any paid consulting with the Conservatives or Tony Clement or any other federal minister on the federal government’s so-called open government initiatives?

    Duff Conacher, Founding Director of Democracy Watch

    Reply
    1. David Eaves

      Hi Duff,

      Thank you for the comment. Let me start by answering your first question. I am not presently, nor have ever been paid by the Conservatives, Tony Clement or Treasury Board to consult on their Open Government initiatives. I have given talks to the government on technology, open innovation and public policy – most often with the Information Commissioner – which I list on my public speaking page.

      Second, none of what you write refutes what I posted in my piece. The meeting in which the commitments need to be presented was not the the one that took place, this meeting is happening in April, also in Brazil. I’m happy to let readers refer to both our pieces and draw their own conclusion, I’ve nothing to add there and believe I am factually correct. Democracy Watch – which has done a great deal of good advocacy work – was, in this instance, offside in its press release.

      The only other part of your comment that concerns me is the charge that I  “…would applaud the federal Conservatives for failing to make these commitments in their OGP plan.” I haven’t applauded (nor have I been critical) since the government has not yet posted its commitments. This is because the consultations around these commitments is still in progress. Indeed, if you (or any readers) have ideas they’d like to contribute I urge you to voice them through the process they have created.

      It is not generally my policy to criticize documents and commitments that have not yet been published nor have even been drafted. Since they don’t yet exist I also find it puzzling how, as you suggest, I could be interpreted as applauding them. I do find it concerning that Democracy Watch seems to have again got its facts confused in this response, but I’m sure there is a good reason.

      Reply
      1. Duff Conacher

        I knew it was too much to expect an apology from you David, but really, more distortions of the facts?

        The Dec. 7-8 Open Government Partnership (OGP) meeting did take place in Brazil — see http://www.opengovpartnership.org/news/open-government-partnership-holds-peer-exchange-meeting-drive-forward-transparency-effort-42-ne — and, as I stated in my post above, new OGP countries like Canada committed to “”Come prepared to share your draft commitments . . .” at that meeting.

        But the federal Conservatives broke their commitment — they didn’t go to the Dec. 7-8 meeting with a draft plan.  And they broke the other 3 commitments they made in terms of actions leading up to that meeting (they failed to consult with the public well in advance of the meeting, to use the networking mechanism, and to begin to draft their plan).

        Compared to, for example, the U.S., the federal Conservatives have said very little about what they will do — see summary of the U.S. commitments at: http://www.opengovpartnership.org/countries/united-states

        And David, please read the tense of the verbs in what I write before responding — I wrote that I hope you “will not claim” (ie. in the future) that the Conservatives have done anything significant if they don’t actually commit to, and then implement, significant changes.

        Once again David, if you are actually an open government advocate, I I hope you will not applaud the Conservatives unless and until they actually make significant changes to the rules in, and enforcement of, many key federal laws (as the U.S. has done or committed to do — see link above) — see the list of changes the Conservatives must commit to, and implement, if they are to comply with the OGP requirements, at: http://dwatch.ca/camp/RelsDec0511.html

        And I hope you will join Democracy Watch and the Open Government Coalition (and other groups that I know will do so) in calling on the OGP Steering Committee to reject the Canadian government’s membership in OGP if the Conservatives do not commit to making all these changes and/or do not implement them.

        Reply

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