Category Archives: canadian politics

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

Backdrop

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.

Funding

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.

Architecture

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.

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.

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.

Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure

Yesterday, at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) Canada Minister of Natural Resource, Joe Oliver, announced with great fanfare a new initiative to compel mining companies to disclose payments of over $100,000’s to foreign and domestic governments.

On the surface this looks like a win for transparency, particularly for a sector that is of great importance to Canada: mining.

And this issue matters since not only do extractive industries represent an important part of Canada’s economy, but the sector has been dogged with controversy. Indeed the Toronto Star just uncovered today a report commissioned (and buried) by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) that showed Canadian mining companies have the worst record when it comes to environmental standard and human rights.

Forcing mining companies to account for their payments to foreign and domestic governments won’t solve every problem, but it can help curb corruption. Indeed the issue was seen as so important that at the last G8 summit, the leaders agreed that companies should be compelled to disclose these payments.

Happily, there is a legitimate global movement to make government payments by extractive industry companies more transparent. It is called the Extractive Industries Transparency Iniative (EITI). It has set a series of standards for disclosing such payments so that they are easier to track across borders. In fact EITI is seen as so important it is actually the only organization mentioned by name in the last G8 summit communique. This is the same EITI program about which last year the Minister’s press secretary boasted:

Since 2007 Canada has also been a supporting country of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and is now the second largest financial donor to the initiative, providing $12.65 million to the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Multi-donor Trust Fund…

Which brings us to Minister Oliver’s important announcement.

Did the government announce that it was joining 42 other countries, including its G8 partners the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to join the standard it has been a major funder of?

No. It did not.

Apparently EITI is good enough to fund so that others can implement it. When it comes to actually doing what is effective… the government balked. Canada, apparently, is going to adhere to its own “unique” approach.

And it gets worse.

Read the Minister’s statement more closely, particularly this line:

“We want to make it as easy as possible, so we will not create a central database. Instead, we would require that reports be posted to company websites, with the government and public notified.”

So unlike EITI, which offers a centralized repository where records can quickly be downloaded and compared, Canada’s “compliance” will involve each company to maintain their own records “somewhere” and will require anyone interested if actually figuring out what is going on to go and track down each one individually.

We call this secrecy by obscurity. It makes a mockery of the notion of transparency.

We have a global infrastructure designed to make disclosure cheap, easy and effective. Infrastructure our own government has poured $12.7M into it. And we turn around and ignore it all.

Canada claims it wants to be a leader in open data. But if it can’t even get something basic like this right… such claims sounds increasingly silly here at home, among our G8 partners and, well, among the rest of the world.

Addendum: It gets worse still. Few people have noticed yet, but Canada recently (and quietly) stopped reporting the names of corporate directors in the public database of the country’s firms. This is a major step backwards and makes those who benefit from one of the most important benefits society can confer – limited liability – invisible to the public who confers that right. This is a major step backwards. Read this wonderful Economist article on why. More on this to come.

The End of Canada Post and the Coming War for Your Mailbox

As pretty much everyone in Canada learned yesterday (and no one outside the country cares to know), Canada Post, the country’s national postal service will phase out home mail delivery by 2019.  The reason? It’s obvious. The internet has hammered mail volumes. There was 20% less mail delivered in 2012 than 2006. And 6 of that 20% decline occurred in 2012 alone, suggesting the pace is accelerating.

First, I’m really quite happy about (the long term implications of) the demise of home delivery. For me, Canada Post has become a state sanctioned spamming infrastructure. When the little red dot on my mailbox rubs off (as it recently did) the volume of actual wanted mail versus unsolicited mail I receive runs at at least 20% versus 80%. Indeed, the average Canadian household got 1,178 flyers in 2010. About 22 a week. And that doesn’t even count unaddressed mail.

I shudder to think of the colossal waste of paper and energy created by the production, shipping, delivery and recycling the essentially endless circulation of this vast pulp forrest. All the more so given less than 3% probably ever gets looked at, much less read.

The problem is, in the short term at least, things may get worse. Or at least messier. One way of thinking about this change is that your front door just got massively deregulated. I suspect a whole new level of unwanted and unsolicited mail spam is about to hit the more densely populated swaths of the country. So much so, I expect we are going to see – in fact demand – new legislation to regulate physical spam.

Let me explain.

Up until now the cheapest way to send you spam – unsolicited mail or even just targeted advertising – was via the post person. Indeed Canada Post has long depended on this – generally unwanted – mail. You may remember in May, in one of the saddest public campaigns ever launched, Canada Post tried persuading Canadians that Junk mail was good for them.

One of the big advantages of junk mail is, however fleeting, it ended up in your home. Shift delivery to a mailbox out of the house however and you get this:

mailbox mess

Toronto Star File Photo

So there are two implications of the change. The first, as the photo above testifies, is that some – maybe even many advertisers, will feel like their mailers are less effective. They will of course actually know this, since the ROI on mailers is a pretty exact, and measured, science.

The second is that the largest player in the delivery of pulp to peoples homes business will have retreated away from… the home. Leaving a big demand to be filled by new entrants.

Thus, it is quite conceivable that Canada Post may see its junk mail volumes decline faster still. However, I suspect that while mail will decline, unaddressed mail – what you and I think of as flyers – could increase. These flyers, delivered by private players, have the enormous benefit of going right to your front door, just like good old junk mail did. Oh, and deliverers of these flyers don’t have pesky policies that stop them from delivering items to houses with signs that say “no junk mail.”

What does that mean? Well hopefully, in the long term, junk mail proves less and less effective a means of selling things. But I suspect that there will always be an advantage to shoveling 30 flyers a week onto your front stoop. So I can imagine another long term trend. In 2010 the government passed anti-spam legislation that focused on, the digital form of spam. So while I’m quite confident this law will have close to zero impact on digital spammers, for a growing number of Canadians I suspect there is little difference between online and offline spam in their mind. So much so that, it would not surprise me if an uptick in unsolicited flyers and mailers to people’s door – where they no longer get actual mail – make real anti-spam legislation a political winner. Indeed, a clever opposition party, wanting to show the more ill-conceived elements of the government’s plan, burnish its environmental credentials and own the idea early, might even propose it.

Will we get there? I don’t know. But if we just unleashed a wave of new spam and flyers on Canadians, I hope some new tool emerges that allows Canadians to say no to unsolicited junk.

The promise and challenges of open government – Toronto Star OpEd

As some readers many know it was recently announced that I’ve been asked by Ontario Premier Wynn and Government Services Minister John Milloy to be part of the Government of Ontario’s task force on Open Government.

The task force will look at best practices around the world as well as engage a number of stakeholders and conduct a series of public consultations across Ontario to make a number of recommendations around opening up the Ontario government.

I have an opinion piece in the Toronto Star today titled The Promise and Challenges of Open Government where I try (in a few words) to outline some of the challenges the task force faces as well as some of the opportunities I hope it can capitalize on.

The promise and challenges of open government

Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the launch of Ontario’s Open Government initiative, including an engagement task force (upon which I sit).

The premier’s announcement comes on the heels of a number of “open government” initiatives launched in recent years. President Barack Obama’s first act in 2009 was to sign the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. Since then numerous city, state and provincial governments across North America are finding new ways to share information. Internationally, 60 countries belong to the Open Government Partnership, a coalition of states and non-profits that seeks to improve accountability, transparency, technology and innovation and citizen participation.

Some of this is, to be blunt, mere fad. But there is a real sense among many politicians and the public that governments need to find new ways to be more responsive to a growing and more diverse set of citizen needs, while improving accountability.

Technology has a certainly been – in part – a driver, if only because it shifts expectations. Today a Google search takes about 30 milliseconds, with many users searching for mere minutes before locating what they are looking for. In contrast, access to information requests can take weeks, or months to complete. In an age of computers, government processes often seem more informed by the photocopier – clinging to complex systems for sorting, copying and sharing information – than using computer systems that make it easy to share information by design.

There is also growing recognition that government data and information can empower people both inside and outside government. In British Columbia, the province’s open data portal is widely used by students – many of whom previously used U.S. data as it was the only free source. Now the province benefits from an emerging workforce that uses local data while studying everything from the environment to demography to education. Meanwhile the largest user of B.C.’s open data portal are public servants, who are able to research and create policy while drawing on better information, all without endless meetings to ask for permission to use other departments’ data. The savings from fewer meetings alone is likely significant.

The benefits of better leveraging government data can affect us all. Take the relatively mundane but important issue of transit. Every day hundreds of thousands of Ontarians check Google Maps or locally developed applications for transit information. The accumulated minutes not spent waiting for transit has likely saved citizens millions of hours. Few probably realize however that it is because local governments “opened” transit data that it has become so accessible on our computers and phones.

Finally, there are a number of new ways to think about how to “talk” to Ontarians. It is possible that traditional public consultations could be improved. But there is also an opportunity to think more broadly about how the government interacts with citizens. Projects like Wikipedia demonstrate how many small contributions can create powerful resources and public assets. Could such a model apply to government?

All of these opportunities are exciting – and the province is right to explore them. But important policy questions remain. For example: how do we safeguard the data government collects to minimize political interference? The country lost a critical resource when the federal government destroyed the reliability of the long form census by making it voluntary. If crowdsourcing and other new forms of public engagement can be adopted for government, how do we manage privacy concerns and preserve equality of opportunity? And how will such changes affect public representation? Canada’s political system has been marked by increasing centralization of power over the past several decades – will new technologies and approaches further this trend? Or could they be shaped to arrest it? These are not simple questions.

It is also easy to dismiss these efforts. This will neither be the first nor the last time people talk about open government. Indeed, there is a wonderfully cynical episode of Yes, Minister from 1980 titled “Open Government.” More recently, various revelations about surveillance and national governments’ desire to snoop in on our every email and phone call reveals much about what is both opaque and to be feared about our governments. Such cynicism is both healthy and necessary. It is also a reason why we should demand more.

Open government is not something we will ever fully achieve. But I do hope that it can serve as an objective and a constantly critical lens for thinking about what we should demand. I can’t speak for the other panelists of the task force, but that will be how I approach my work.

David Eaves is a public policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert. He is a member of the Ontario government’s new Engagement Task Force.