Tag Archives: canada

A Response to a Ottawa Gov 2.0 Skeptic

So many, many months ago a Peter R. posted this comment (segments copied below) under a post I’d written titled: Prediction, The Digital Economy Strategy Will Fail if it Isn’t Drafted Collaboratively on GCPEDIA. At first blush Peter’s response felt aggressive. I flipped him an email to say hi and he responded in a very friendly manner. I’ve been meaning to respond for months but, life’s been busy.  However, over the break (and my quest to hit inbox 0) I finally carved out some time –  my fear is that this late response will sound like a counter attack – it isn’t intended as such but rather an effort to respond to a genuine question. I thought it would be valuable to post as many of the points may resonate with supporters and detractors of Gov 2.0 alike. Here’s my responses to the various charges:

The momentum, the energy and the excitement behind collaborative/networked/web 2.0/etc is only matched by the momentum, the energy and the excitement that was behind making money off of leveraged debt instruments in the US.

Agreed, there is a great deal of energy and excitement behind collaborative networks, although I don’t think this is sparked – as ensued, by something analogous to bogus debt instruments. People are excited because of the tangible results created by sharing and/or co-production networks like Wikipedia, Mozilla, Flickr Google search and Google Translate (your results improve based on users data) and Ushahidi inspire people because of the tremendous results they are able to achieve with a smaller footprint of resources. I think the question of what these types of networks and this type of collaboration means to government is an important question – that also means that as people experiment their will be failures – but to equate the entire concept of Gov 2.0 and the above cited organizations, tools and websites with financial instruments that repackaged subprime mortgages is, in my mind, fairly problematic.

David, the onus lies squarely with you to prove that policymakers across government are are incapable of finding good policy solutions WITHOUT letting everyone and his twitting brother chime in their two cents.

Actually the onus doesn’t lie squarely with me. This is a silly statement. In fact, for those of us who believe in collaborative technologies such as GCPEDIA or yammer this sentence is the single most revealing point in the Peter’s entire comment. I invite everyone and anyone to add to my rebuttal, or to Peter’s argument. Even those who argue against me would be proving my point – tools like blogs and GCPEDIA allow ideas and issues to be debated with a greater number of people and a wider set of perspectives. The whole notion that any thought or solution lies solely with one person is the type of thinking that leads to bad government (and pretty much bad anything). I personally believe that the best ideas emerge when they are debated and contested – honed by having flaws exposed and repaired. Moreover this has never been more important than today, when more and more issues cross ministerial divides. Indeed, the very fact that we are having this discussion on my blog, and that Peter deemed it worthy of comment, is a powerful counterpoint this statement.

Equally important, I never said policymakers across government are are incapable of finding good policy solutions. This is serious misinterpretation of what said. I did say that the Digital Economy Strategy would fail (and I’ll happily revise, and soften to say, will likely not be meaningful) unless written on GCPEDIA. I still believe this. I don’t believe you can have people writing policy about how to manage an economy who are outside of and/or don’t understand the tools of that economy. I actually think our public servants can find great policy solutions – if we let them. In fact, most public servants I know spend most of their time trying to track down public servants in other ministries or groups to consult them about the policy they are drafting. In short, they spend all their time trying to network, but using tools of the late 20th century (like email), mid 20th century (telephone), or mid 3rd century BC (the meeting) to do it. I just want to give them more efficient tools – digital tools, like those we use in a digital economy – so they can do what they are already doing.

For the last 8 years I’ve worked in government, I can tell you with absolute certainty (and credibility!) that good policy emerges from sound research and strategic instrument choice. Often (select) public consultations are required, but sometimes none at all. Take 3 simple and highly successful policy applications: seat belts laws, carbon tax, banking regulation. Small groups of policymakers have developed policies (or laws, regs, etc) to brilliant effect….sans web 2.0. So why do we need gcpedia now?

Because the world expects you to do more, faster and with less. I find this logic deeply concerning coming from a public servant. No doubts that government developed policies to brilliant effect before the wide adoption of the computer, or even the telephone. So should we get rid of them too? An increasing number of the world’s major corporations are, or are setting up an internal wiki/collaboration platform, a social networking site, even using microblogging services like Yammer to foster internal collaboration. Indeed, these things help us to do research and develop ideas faster, and I think, better. The question isn’t why do we need GCPEDIA now. The question is why aren’t we investing to make GCPEDIA a better platform? The rest of the world is.

I’ll put this another way: tons of excellent policy solutions are waiting in the shared drives of bureaucrats across all governments.

I agree. Let’s at least put it on a wiki where more people can read them, leverage them and, hopefully, implement them. You sitting on a great idea that three other people in the entire public service have read isn’t a recipe for getting it adopted. Nor is it a good use of Canadian tax dollars. Socializing it is. Hence, social media.

Politics — being what it is — doesn’t generate progressive out solutions for various ideological reasons (applies equally to ndp, lib, con). First, tell us what a “failed” digitial economy strategy (DES) looks like. Second, tell us what components need to be included in the DES for it be successful. Third, show us why gcpedia/wikis offer the only viable means to accumulate the necessary policy ingredients.

For the last part – see my earlier post and above. As for what a failed digital economy strategy looks like – it will be one that is irrelevant. It is one that will go ignored by the majority of people who actually work in the digital economy. Of course, an irrelevant policy will be better than a truly bad one which, which I suspect, is also a real risk based on the proceedings of Canada 3.0. (That conference seemed to be about “how do we save analog business that are about to be destroyed by the digital economy” – a link to one of my favourite posts). And of course I have other metrics that matter to me. That all said, after meeting the public servant in charge of the process at Canada 3.0, I was really, really encouraged – she is very smart and gets it.

She also found the idea of writing the policy on GCPEDIA intriguing. I have my doubts that that is how things are proceeding, but it gives me hope.

Canada's Secret Open Data Strategy?

Be prepared for the most boring sentence to an intriguing blog post.

The other night, I was, as one is wont to do, reading through a random Organization for Economic Coordination and Development report entitled Towards Recovery and Partnership with Citizens: The Call for Innovative and Open Government. The report was, in fact, a summary of its recent Ministerial Meeting of the OECD’s Public Governance Committee.

Naturally, I flipped to the section authored by Canada and, imagine the interest with which I read the following:

The Government of Canada currently makes a significant amount of open data available through various departmental websites. Fall 2010 will see the launch of a new portal to provide one-stop access to federal data sets by providing a “single-window” to government data. In addition to providing a common “front door” to government data, a searchable catalogue of available data, and one-touch data downloading, it will also encourage users to develop applications that re-use and combine government data to make it useful in new and unanticipated ways, creating new value for Canadians. Canada is also exploring the development of open data policies to regularise the publication of open data across government. The Government of Canada is also working on a strategy, with engagement and input from across the public service, developing short and longer-term strategies to fully incorporate Web 2.0 across the government.

In addition, Canada’s proactive disclosure initiatives represent an ongoing contribution to open and transparent government. These initiatives include the posting of travel and hospitality expenses, government contracts, and grants and contribution funding exceeding pre-set thresholds. Subsequent phases will involve the alignment of proactive disclosure activities with those of the Access to Information Act, which gives citizens the right to access information in federal government records.

Lots of interesting things packed into these two paragraphs, something I’m sure readers concerned with open data, open government and proactive, would agree with. So let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly, of all of this, in that order.

The Good

So naturally the first sentence is debatable. I don’t think Canada makes a significant amount of its data available at all. Indeed, across every government website there is probably no more than 400 data sets available in machine readable format. That’s less that the city of Washington DC. It’s about (less than) 1% of what Britain or the United States disclose. But, okay,let’s put that unfortunate fact aside.

The good and really interesting thing here is that the Government is stating that it was going to launch an open data portal. This means the government is thinking seriously about open data. This means – in all likelihood – policies are being written, people are being consulted (internally), processes are being thought through. This is good news.

It is equally good news that the government is developing a strategy for deploying Web 2.0 technologies across the government. I hope this will be happening quickly as I’m hearing that in many departments this is still not embraced and, quite often, is banned outright. Of course, using social media tools to talk with the public is actually the wrong focus (Since the communications groups will own it all and likely not get it right for quite a while), the real hope is being allowed to use the tools internally.

The Bad

On the open data front, the bad is that the portal has not launched. We are now definitely passed the fall of 2010 and, as for whatever reason, there is no Canadian federal open data portal. This may mean that the policy (despite being announced publicly in the above document) is in peril or that it is simply delayed. Innumerable things can delay a project like this (especially on the open data front). Hopefully whatever the problem is, it can be overcome. More importantly, let us hope the government does something sensible around licensing and uses the PDDL and not some other license.

The Ugly

Possibly the heart stopping moment in this brief comes in the last paragraph where the government talks about posting travel and hospitality expenses. While these are often posted (such as here) they are almost never published in machine readable format and so have to be scrapped in order to be organized, mashed up or compared to other departments. Worse still, these files are scattered across literally hundreds of government websites and so are virtually impossible to track down. This guy has done just that, but of course now he has the data, it is more easily navigable but no more open then before. In addition, it takes him weeks (if not months) to do it, something the government could fix rather simply.

The government should be lauded for trying to make this information public. But if this is their notion of proactive disclosure and open data, then we are in for a bumpy, ugly ride.

Canada ranks last in freedom of information

For those who missed it over the weekend it turns out Canada ranks last in freedom of information study that looked at the world’s western Parliamentary democracies. What makes it all the more astounding is that a decade ago Canada was considered a leader.

Consider two from the Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault quotes pulled from the piece:

Only about 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests filed last year resulted in the full disclosure of information, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago, she noted.

And delays in the release of records continue to grow, with just 56 per cent of requests completed in the legislated 30-day period last year, compared with almost 70 per cent at the start of the decade.

These are appalling numbers.

The sad thing is… don’t expect things to get better. Why?

Firstly, the current government seems completely uninterested in access to information, transparency and proactive disclosure, despite these being core planks of its election platform and core values of the reform movement that re-launched Canadian conservatism. Indeed, reforming and improving access to information is the only unfulfilled original campaign promise of the Conservatives – and there appears to be no interest in touching it. Quite the opposite – that political staff now intervene to block and restrict Access to Information Requests – contravening the legislation and policy – is now a well known and documented fact.

Second, this issue is of secondary importance to the public. While everyone will say they care about access to information and open government, then number of people (while growing) still remains small. These types of reports and issues are of secondary importance. This isn’t to say they don’t matter. They do – but generally after something bigger and nastier has come to light and the public begins to smell rot. Then studies like this become the type of thing that hurts a government – it gives legitimacy and language to a sentiment people widely feel.

Third, the public seems confused about who they distrust more – the fact is, however bad the current government is on this issue, the Liberal brand is still badly tarnished on this issue of transparent government due to the scandals from almost a decade ago. Sadly, this means that there will be less burden on this government to act since – every time the issue of transparency and open government arise – rather than act, Government leaders simply point out the other parties failings.

So as the world moves on while Canada remains stuck, its government becoming more opaque, distant and less accountable to the people that elect it.

Interestingly , this also has a real cost to Canada’s influence in the world. It means something when the world turns to you as an expert – as we once were on access to information – minister’s are consulted by other world leaders, your public servants are given access to information loops they might otherwise not know about, there is a general respect, a soft power, that comes from being an acknowledged leader. Today, this is gone.

Indeed, it is worth noting that of the countries survey in the above mentioned study, only Canada and Ireland do not have open data portals which allow for proactive disclosure.

It’s a sign of the times.

How Tories could do transparency – Globe and Mail

Today’s blog post appears in the Globe and Mail. You can read it there (please do, also give it a vote).

How Tories could do transparency

Britain’s new Conservative government did something on Friday that Canadians would fine impossible to imagine. After a brief video announcement from Prime Minister David Cameron about the importance of the event, Francis Maude, Minister of the Cabinet Office, and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, announced that henceforth the spending data for every British ministry on anything over £25,000 (about $40,000) would be available for anyone in the world to download. The initial release of information revealed thousands and thousands of lines of data and almost £80-billion (about $129.75-billion) in spending. And starting in January, every ministry must update the data once a month.

For the British Conservative Party, this is a strategic move. Faced with a massive deficit, the government is enlisting the help of all Britons to identify any waste. More importantly, however, they see releasing data as a means by which to control government spending. Indeed, Mr. Maude argues: “When you are forced to account for the money you spend, you spend it more wisely. We believe that publishing this data will lead to better decision-making in government and will ultimately help us save money.” And they might be right. Already, organizations like Timetric, the Guardian newspaper and the Open Knowledge Foundation have visualized, organized and indexed the data so it is easier for ordinary citizens understand and explore how their government spends their money.

These external sites are often more powerful than what the government has. After observing the way these sites handle the data, the minister noted how he wished he’d had access to them while negotiating with some of the government’s largest contractors.

For Canadians, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is but a distant example of a world that a truly transparent government could – and should – create. In contrast, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seem stuck in a trap described by Mr. Maude in his opening sentences: “Opposition parties are always remarkably keen on greater government transparency, but this enthusiasm mysteriously tends to diminish once they actually gain power.” Canada’s Conservatives have been shy about sharing any information with anyone. Afghan detainee files aren’t shared with Parliament; stimulus package accounts were not emailed to the Parliamentary Budget Office, but uselessly handed over in 4,476 printed pages. Even the Auditor-General is denied MP expense data. All this as access-to-information wait times exceed critical levels and Canada, unlike the United States, Britain , Australia and New Zealand, languishes with no open-data policy. Only once has the government pro-actively shared real “data,” when it shared some stimulus data that could be downloaded.

The irony is not only that the Tories ran on an agenda of accountability and transparency, but that – as their British counterparts understand – actually implementing a transparency and open-data policy may be one of the best ways to stamp a conservative legacy on the government’s future. Moreover, it could be a very popular move.

During the digital economy strategy consultations, open data was the second-most popular suggestion. Interestingly, it would appear the Liberals are prepared to explore the opportunity. They are the only party with a formal policy on open data that matches the standards recently set by Britain and, increasingly, in the United States.

Open data will eventually come to Canada. When, however, is unclear. In the meantime it is our colleagues elsewhere that will reap the benefits of savings, improved analysis and better civic engagement. So until Mr. Harper’s team changes its mind, Canadians must look abroad to see what a Conservative government that actually believes in transparency could look like.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

Is Government Funding the Kiss of Death?

Over the past few years/months talking to various people in the charitable and non-profit sector a recurring theme has emerged: More and more of them are either eschewing government funding or trying to find ways to do so.

Given that governments are the largest source of funding… why would they do this?

The reason is simple. The overhead of administering, overseeing and reporting back on (particularly federal and provincial) government grants or awards has become so onerous that the costs of oversight are increasingly greater than the value of the grant itself. This is particularly true of smaller grants (in the 5 digit range) but still true of even 6 figure awards. In addition to oversight, many people in the sector inform me that governments are not only looking more closely at how recipients spend the money they receive but are increasingly assertive in specifying how they should spend it.

So, in sum, it’s not hard to see why organizations want to walk away. The costs of the money is increasingly too great. On the one hand, compliance means more and more money is diverted to administration – rather than the core mission of the group – and increasing oversight means a loss of autonomy. Consequently, less money can go towards innovative, but riskier, new approaches that might yield better outcomes, or greater efficiencies.

The outcome, I fear, is a non-profit and charitable sector that starts to cleave in two.

On the one side will be non-profits (like those of some colleagues I know) that see eschewing government money as the only way to stay nimble, innovative and independent. These groups will either find progressive granting organizations, wealthy individuals or alternative ways create revenues. Freed to spend their funds as they see best, the most effective will achieve escape velocity and be able to operate for long periods of time without needing to consider government funding.

On the other side, there risks being those locked into government dependency. Unable to fund new projects and innovative approaches that might attract new external funding, they will be trapped in a government deathgrip, forced to adopt traditional approaches and take on excessive overhead, all in order to meet their funding obligations. In short, they will need to mirror the very bureaucracy that not being independent from was what was supposed to give them a competitive advantage.

On the one hand, this is the kind of situation that makes me jealous of the United States with its large pool of private foundations and granting organizations that ensure innovation thrives in the non-profit/charitable sector. But that is a structural difference smaller countries like Canada will not be able to overcome. We need our government’s to be smarter since we can’t replicate the American model.

This is made all the more difficult since those who’ve achieved escape velocity want little to do with government, while those dependent on government funding are probably the least likely (or empowered) to speak up. Sadly, no one wants to upset the government… (why bite the hand that feeds, even if the fruit is poisoned?) so we live in a world of silence on this issue.

I’ll confess, I’m somewhat stumped by the issue but I am worried about it. This country depends on non-profits more than people realize… anything that hampers their effectiveness is a collective drain on productivity, efficiency and competitiveness, to say nothing of social justice.

Not all Maclean’s Covers are Created (or Treated) Equal

Which one of these covers is more damning?

Macleans-Cover vs.  images

Now that a little time has passed I was reflecting on the controversy about the Maclean’s cover about Quebec as “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada” and remain amazed at the outcry it generated. It is stunning that Parliament took time out to condemn the cover. I don’t say this because I think the article is true. Let’s face it, Canada really isn’t that corrupt. In 2009 Transparency International ranked us as tied for 8th as the least corrupt country in the world. What is more interesting is that so many people felt it was in their interests to take seriously (or exploit) what was obvious link bait.

Indeed what made the outcry all the more fascinating was the a mere 2 years earlier Maclean’s called BC a “World Crime Superpower” and that elicited no response. No outcry from parliament… no screams of protest… Again, in the grand scheme of things claiming BC us a World Crime Superpower on par with countries like say Mexico, Afghanistan and Colombia feels, like a stretch. (Although the economic impact on BC of California decriminalization marijuana is fascinating topic)

Lots of reasons can account for the difference. Part of it may be that BCers frankly don’t care what the rest of the country – not to mention Maclean’s – think. It’s also possible the BCers have less of a sense of common identity – especially one sensitive to how the central Canada describes it. It may also be a reflection of how political power doesn’t always flow with demographics or even opportunity. Today there are few seats to be won in Quebec – the bloc is entrenched and unlikely to move. making a big stink probably isn’t going to change one’s fortunes. In contrast, in BC, vast swaths of the province are up for grabs for all the parties (save the Bloc) – defending the honour of BC might actually yield something. And then, of course, all the parties may not be interested in condemning the Superpower of Crime label – a real, or imagined – creates a mega-crime menace in BC that would play well with a party interested in finding kingpins to fill the empty prisons it plans to build. Perhaps not coming to BCs defense is the shrewd move for some (although one is left wondering, where were the others?).

I think what is most interesting though is that it suggests that for all of the past challenges Quebec has had regarding being in Canada, it is an activist member of the dominion, both in its politics and in its populace. Quebecers seem to care what the rest of the country thinks and they’ll sharpen their elbows and let themselves be heard if necessary. In short, they’ll play in the game. BC has never cared to separate, but sometimes it feels like the province the least part of the dominion. Federal politics don’t get much play in BC, its provincial politicians rarely play the federal game (well) and its population is usually oblivious to what goes on east of the Rockies. Hence the irony of a province that has at times wanted out still cares so much, and a province that defined the country by asking to come in, cares so little.

Or maybe it’s just all a fun note about the fun country we live in and how old stereotypes sometimes send us into a tizzy… and sometimes not.

The Open Data Debate Arrives in Ottawa

The Liberals are promising to create an open data portal – opendata.gc.ca – much like President Obama has done in the United States and both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have done in the United Kingdom.

It’s a savvy move.

In May 2010 when it launched a public consultation on the Digital Economy, the government invited the public to submit proposals and vote on them. Two of the top three most voted ideas involved asking the government to open up access to government collected data. Three months after the submissions have closed it appears the opposition has decided to act on Canadians wishes and release a 21st century open government strategy that reflects these popular demands.

Today, at 1pm EST, I’ve discovered the Liberals will announce that, if elected, they will adopt a government-wide directive in which “the default position for all departments and agencies will be for the release of information to the public, both proactively and responsively, after privacy and other legal requirements are met.”

There is much that both ordinary citizens and advocates of greater government transparency will like in the proposal. Not only have the Liberals mirrored the most aggressive parts of President Obama’s transparency initiatives they are also promising some specific and aggressive policies of their own. In addition to promising to launching opendata.gc.ca to share government data the document proposes the creation of accesstoinformation.gc.ca where citizens could search past and current access to information requests as well as see response times. A third website, entitled accountablespending.gc.ca is also proposed. It would allow government grants, contributions and contracts to be searched.

The announcement brings to the Canadian political debate an exciting issue that first gained broad notoriety in early 2009 when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, called on the world’s governments to share their data. By May of that year the United States launched data.gov and in September of 2009 the British Government launched data.gov.uk both of which garnered significant domestic attention. In addition, dozens of cities around the world – including Vancouver, Edmonton and, most recently, Ottawa – have launched websites where they shared information that local charities, non-profits, businesses and ordinary citizens might find useful.

Today, citizens in these jurisdictions enjoy improved access to government information about the economy, government spending, access to information requests, and statistical data. In the United States developers have created websites that empower citizens by enabling them to analyze government data or see what government data exists about their community while a British program alerts citizens to restaurant’s health inspections scores.  The benefit however, not limited to improved transparency and accountability. An independent British estimated that open data could contribute as much as £6 billion to British economy. Canada’s computer developers, journalists and entrepreneurs have been left wondering, when will their government give them access to the data their tax dollars paid to collect?

One obvious intent of the Liberals is to reposition themselves at the forefront of a debate around government transparency and accountability. This is ground that has traditionally been Conservative, but with the cancellation of the long form census, the single source jet fighter contract and, more recently, allegations that construction contracts were awarded to conservative party donors, is once again contestable.

What will be interesting to see is the Conservative response. It’s been rumored the government has explored an open data portal but to date there has been no announcement. Open data is one area where, often, support exists across the political spectrum. In the United Kingdom Gordon Brown’s Labour government launched data.gov.uk but David Cameron’s Conservative government has pursued the project more aggressively still, forcing the release of additional and higher value data to the public. A failure to adopt open data would be tragedy – it would cause Canada to lag in an important space that is beginning to reshape how governments work together and how they serve and interact with citizens. But perhaps most obviously, open data and open government shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

How you know a government is broken

Last Friday Gloria Galloway and Bill Curry ran an excellent piece about how the government’s promise to strengthen Canada’s access-to-information laws is now five years old.

It is of course all so laughable it is sad. Here we have an issue that the public is universally supportive of – making government more transparent and accountable – and yet the government contends the issue requires extensive consultation. And so… no action.

Meanwhile, on issues to which the public is almost universally opposed – for example the long form census – the government acts without consultation, without evidence and in the dead of night, hoping that no one will notice.

Again, it would be laughable if the implications weren’t so serious. It’s also a big reversal of what should have been and maybe the clearest sign yet this government is broken.

And it didn’t have to be this way. Looking back at the Conservative’s 2006 election platform under the header “Strengthen Access to Information legislation” The government promised it would (this is verbatim)

  • Implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act. Give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information.
  • Expand the coverage of the act to all Crown corporations, Officers of Parliament, foundations, and organizations that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions.
  • Subject the exclusion of Cabinet confidences to review by the Information Commissioner. Oblige public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions.
  • Provide a general public interest override for all exemptions, so that the public interest is put before the secrecy of the government.
  • Ensure that all exemptions from the disclosure of government information are justified only on the basis of the harm or injury that would result from disclosure, not blanket exemption rules.
  • Ensure that the disclosure requirements of the Access to Information Act cannot be circumvented by secrecy provisions in other federal acts, while respecting the confidentiality of national security and the privacy of personal information.

How many of these promises have been implemented? To date, only one (the one that is italicized)

As an aside, take a look at that platform. Guess what isn’t mentioned once: The long form census.

One of the great pledges of the Conservative government was that they were going to make government more accountable and more transparent. So far, when it comes to managing information – the collective documents our tax dollars paid to create – today our government is more opaque, more dumb and less inspiring to Canadians than it has ever been. For a government that was supposed to restore Canadians confidence in their country, it has been a sad decline to observe.

Right to Know Week – going on Right Now

So, for those not in the know (…groan) this week is Right to Know Week.

Right to Know (RTK) Week is and internationally designated week with events taking place around the world. It is designed to improve people’s awareness of their rights to access government information and the role such access plays in democracy and good governance. Here in Canada there is an entire week’s worth of events planned and it is easy to find out what’s happening near you.

Last year, during RTK Week I was invited to speak in Ottawa on a panel for parliamentarians. My talk, called Government Transparency in a Digital Age (blog post about it & slideshare link) seemed to go well and the Information Commissioner soon after started quoting some of my ideas and writings in her speeches and testimony/reports to parliamentary. Unsurprisingly, she has become a fantastic ally and champion in the cause for open data. Indeed, most recently, the Federal Information Commissioner, along with all the her provincial counterparts, released a joint statement calling on their respective governments to proactively disclosing information “in open, accessible and reusable formats.”

What is interesting about all this, is that over the course of the last year the RTK community – as witnessed by the Information Commissioners transformation – has begun to understand why “the digital” is radically transforming what access means and how it can work. There is an opportunity to significantly enlarge the number and type of allies in the cause of “open government.” But for this transformation to take place, the traditional players will need to continue to rethink and revise both their roles and their relationships with these new players. This is something I hope to pick up on in my talk.

So yes… this year, I’ll be back in Ottawa again.

I’ll once again be part of the Conference for Parliamentarians-Balancing Openness and the Public Interest in Protecting Information panel, which I’ll be doing with:

  • David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
  • Vanessa Brinkmann, Counsel, Initial Request Staff, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Department of Justice; and
  • James Travers of the Toronto Star

Perhaps even more exciting than the panel I’m on though is the panel that shows how quickly both this week and the Information Officer’s are trying to transform. Consider that, this year, RTK will include a panel on open data titled Push or Pull: Liberating Government Information” it will be chaired by Microsoft’s John Weigelt and have on it:

  • Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy
  • Kady O’Malley, Parliamentary blogger for CBC.ca’s Inside Politics blog
  • Jeff Sallot, Carleton University journalism instructor and former Globe and Mail journalist

Sadly I have a prior commitment back in Vancouver so won’t be there in person, but hope to check it out online, hope you will too.

Welcome to Right to Know Week. Hope you’ll join in the fray.

Census Update: It's the Economy, Stupid

Yesterday during a press conference newly minted House leader John Baird announced “The next few months will be sharply focused on Canadians’ No. 1 priority: jobs and the economy… The economic recovery remains fragile and it is increasingly clear that we are not out of the woods yet.”

Fantastic news.

I just hope someone sends Industry Minister Tony Clement the memo.

The effects and impacts of ending the mandatory long form census continues to spill out with a number of Canada’s most senior business and economic leaders pointing out how the decision will negatively impact the economy and… job growth.

First, there was Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (voted one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine) noting that the bank relies on data found in the mandatory long form to assess the economy and, presumably, to inform decisions on interest rates and other issues. The bank’s capacity to make informed decisions has now been compromised – not exactly a win for jobs or the economy.

As an interesting side note, Carney goes on to say that this may cause the bank to have to supplement StatsCan’s research with its own. Expect to hear more and more statements like this from Government agencies (which are still allowed to talk to the press) as more and more ministries and agencies get plunged into the dark regarding what is going on in the country and are no longer able to assess programs and issues they’ve been tasked to monitor. Various arms of the government (and thus you, taxpayer) will be spending 10s if not 100s of millions to pay for Industry Minister Clement’s mistake.

Then, in the same Globe article in which Carney makes these statements, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management notes that ending the long form census hampers Canadian companies capacity to both compete globally and boost productivity. More damning, and further echoing arguments I’ve been making here, he states it will prevent Canadians from having “a sophisticated economy that uses information to its best.” Unkind words from one of the world’s recognized business leaders.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. The always excellent Stephen Gordon lists the emerging academic literature chronicling the havoc the demise of the long form census is about to wreck. Especially relevant is “The Importance of the Long-Form Census to Canada” by UBC economists David Green and Kevin Milligan. Interestingly, it turns out that the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation uses long form data to fulfill its legislative mandate, and also by local governments and private sector actors to learn about trends in housing. Something that might be of interest to those concerned about the economy and jobs given Canada is rumored to possible have a housing bubble.

Still more damning is how Green and Milligan show the mandatory long form serves as the foundation for the Labour Force Survey (LFS) from which we derive unemployment levels. Compromising the long form survey has, in short, compromised our ability to assess how many Canadians actually have jobs, something that, if you really believed Canadians felt the economy and jobs were the number 1 priority, your government should care about measuring accurately.

Maybe John Baird will sit down with Tony Clement and the Prime Minister and explain to them how, if the economy and jobs are priority 1 then perhaps the government should rethink its decision on the long form census.

Just don’t hold your breath. Instead, do write another email or letter to your local MP. Our country’s economic recovery and competitiveness is being eroded by a government either too dumb to understand the implications of its decision and too stubborn to admit a mistake. Those of us who will be paying the price should remind them of how they can best serve their own priorities.