Tag Archives: canada

How not to woo Liberals

There is no doubt that many Liberals are engaged in some (much needed) deep introspection.

But on the issue of a merger with the NDP Douglas Bell’s piece in the Globe may have been one of the worst thing proponents (on either the NDP or Liberal side) could have asked for.

Bell’s piece, which links to a West Wing clip that ends with the line “there needs to be TWO parties” is beset by all the things NDPers claim to hate about Liberals: smugness, hypocrisy, and callous insensitivity. If this is the opening move in a potential merger, it may have been on of the shortest windows of opportunity in the history of politics.

It begins with the fact that Bell – by choosing this video – suggests that Liberals have rolled over on every major policy issue and lack backbone. For a party whose members likely feel they have innumerable social justice victories under their belt this is not an effort to woo those with ideas and a desire to advance the progressive cause, it is cheap effort to insult them. While I work as a negotiation consultant, you don’t need to be an expert to know that if you are looking to create a partnership, mocking the people you seek to engage isn’t an effective a strategy.

What makes the piece more galling is that Bell himself rejected a proposition in the past. Indeed, only last year Bell noted that a merger might not work and worse, might compromise the NDP. Better, he said, for the NDP to wait until conditions were more in its favour. Of course, now that the tables have turned, Bell expects Liberals to do the very thing he himself was unwilling to do: compromise. If the terms of a merger are do as I say, not as I do, they probably aren’t that appealing. The NDP was patient and successful. Bell’s tone will – I suspect – leave Liberals thinking they’d be better off follow his advice from last year and not his dictate from this week. Plan, build and wait until conditions are more favorably. (Note to Liberals: if it should come to pass, be sure that you write a significantly kinder offer to the NDP.)

But more importantly, the longer term implications of the election are still unknown. Most federalists would agree that if you have several referendums for independence and win only the most recent one, your claim to secede is not completely firm. The same probably applies to elections. The NDP has run in elections for decades. A single “win” which sees it sitting in opposition (not government) does not a viable or sustainable alternative governing party one make. Today the NDP is much, much closer to that goal and its members have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that they can be a national political party that sustains a strong base. Many hope it can. But to simply demand Liberals fold up camp because of a single NDP success (not victory) takes the arrogance of well, the worst type of liberal.

Moreover, speaking of secession votes, there are real risks ahead. It’s worth noting that the NDP’s gains were largely made by opening up the pandora’s box of national unity. As bad as the Liberal’s “snakebite” may be in Quebec, the NDP may have just received its own, far more potent one, the type that bit Muroney. I pray, for the country, they have not. But consider this quote from the NDP’s youngest MP: “What I’ve said throughout the campaign is that sovereignty, we know, won’t happen in Ottawa. As long as Quebec hasn’t decided, why not have a [federal] government in Quebec’s image?… That’s how I campaigned: As long as we’re in Canada, why not have a government in Quebec’s image.” In short, the NDP is a pit stop on the way to sovereignty. If the choice is between defining a progressive agenda at the cost, or defining a progressive agenda within Canada – I suspect that most Liberals (and many Canadians) will choose the latter. Can Layton and the NDP make this coalition stick? And is it a coalition federalists want to be part of? These are tough questions and tradeoffs that will have to be debated. They are also debates that, historically, have ended in tears for all involved.

Does the country need two parties? Unclear. What is clear is that such an end game won’t emerge on the left if the terms of debate are defined by insults. The attitude in Bell’s article suggests that any kind of reconciliation and merger will be much, much more difficult then some people assume. Ultimately, politics is driven by those who believe in a vision they want others to share, to win them over that vision needs to feel inclusive for people, not degrading. I’m sure the post felt fun to write but it is hard to see how it advanced the cause of the NDP.


Canada launches data.gc.ca – what works and what is broken

Those on twitter will already know that this morning I had the privilege of conducting a press conference with Minister Day about the launch of data.gc.ca – the Federal Government’s Open Data portal. For those wanting to learn more about open data and why it matters, I suggest this and this blog post, and this article – they outline some of the reasons why open data matters.

In this post I want to review what works, and doesn’t work, about data.gc.ca.

What works

Probably the most important thing about data.gc.ca is that it exists. It means that public servants across the Government of Canada who have data they would like to share can now point to a website that is part of government policy. It is an enormous signal of permission from a central agency that will give a number of people who want to share data permission, a process and a vehicle, by which to do this. That, in of itself, is significant.

Indeed, I was informed that already a number of ministries and individuals are starting to approach those operating the portal asking to share their data. This is exactly the type of outcome we as citizens should want.

Moreover, I’ve been told that the government wants to double the number of data sets, and the number of ministries, involved in the site. So the other part that “works” on this site is the commitment to make it bigger. This is also important, as there have been some open data portals that have launched with great fanfare, only to have the site languish as neither new data sets are added and the data sets on the site are not updated and so fall out of date.

What’s a work in progress

The number of “high value” datasets is, relatively speaking, fairly limited. I’m always cautious about this as, I feel, what constitutes high value varies from user to user. That said, there are clearly data sets that will have greater impact on Canadians: budget data, line item spend data by department (as the UK does), food inspection data, product recall data, pretty much everything on the statscan website, Service Canada locations, postal code data and, mailbox location data, business license data, Canada Revenue data on charities and publicly traded companies are all a few that quickly come to mind, clearly I can imagine many, many more…

I think the transparency, tech, innovation, mobile and online services communities will be watching data.gc.ca closely to see what data sets get added. What is great is that the government is asking people what data sets they’d like to see added. I strongly encourage people to let the government know what they’d like to see, especially when it involves data the government is already sharing, but in unhelpful formats.

What doesn’t work

In a word: the license.

The license on data.gc.ca is deeply, deeply flawed. Some might go so far as to say that the license does not make it data open at all – a critique that I think is fair. I would say this: presently the open data license on data.gc.ca effectively kills any possible business innovation, and severally limits the use in non-profit realms.

The first, and most problematic is this line:

“You shall not use the data made available through the GC Open Data Portal in any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada.”

What does this mean? Does it mean that any journalist who writes a story, using data from the portal, that is critical of the government, is in violation of the terms of use? It would appear to be the case. From an accountability and transparency perspective, this is a fatal problem.

But it is also problematic from a business perspective. If one wanted to use a data set to help guide citizens around where they might be well, and poorly, served by their government, would you be in violation? The problem here is that the clause is both sufficiently stifling and sufficiently negative that many businesses will see the risk of using this data simply too great.

UPDATE: Thursday March 17th, 3:30pm, the minister called me to inform me that they would be striking this clause from the contract. This is excellent news and Treasury Board deserves credit for moving quickly. It’s also great recognition that this is a pilot (e.g. beta) project and so hopefully, the other problems mentioned here and in the comments below will also be addressed.

It is worth noting that no other open data portal in the world has this clause.

The second challenging line is:

“you shall not disassemble, decompile except for the specific purpose of recompiling for software compatibility, or in any way attempt to reverse engineer the data made available through the GC Open Data Portal or any part thereof, and you shall not merge or link the data made available through the GC Open Data Portal with any product or database for the purpose of identifying an individual, family or household or in such a fashion that gives the appearance that you may have received or had access to, information held by Canada about any identifiable individual, family or household or about an  organization or business.”

While I understand the intent of this line, it is deeply problematic for several reasons. First, many business models rely on identifying individuals, indeed, frequently individuals ask businesses to do this. Google, for example, knows who I am and offers custom services to me based on the data they have about me. It would appear that terms of use would prevent Google from using Government of Canada data to improve its service even if I have given them permission. Moreover, the future of the digital economy is around providing customized services. While this data has been digitized, it effectively cannot be used as part of the digital economy.

More disconcerting is that these terms apply not only to individuals, but also to organizations and businesses. This means that you cannot use the data to “identify” a business. Well, over at Emitter.ca we use data from Environment Canada to show citizens facilities that pollute near them. Since we identify both the facilities and the companies that use them (not to mention the politicians whose ridings these facilities sit in), are we not in violation of the terms of use? In a similar vein, I’ve talked about how government data could have prevented $3B of tax fraud. Sadly, data from this portal would not have changed that since, in order to have found the fraud, you’d have to have identified the charitable organizations involved. Consequently, this requirement manifestly destroys any accountability the data might create.

It is again worth noting that no other open data portal in the world has this clause.

And finally:

4.1 You shall include and maintain on all reproductions of the data made available through the GC Open Data Portal, produced pursuant to section 3 above, the following notice:

Reproduced and distributed with the permission of the Government of Canada.

4.2 Where any of the data made available through the GC Open Data Portal is contained within a Value-Added Product, you shall include in a prominent location on such Value-Added Product the following notice:

This product has been produced by or for (your name – or corporate name, if applicable) and includes data provided by the Government of Canada.

The incorporation of data sourced from the Government of Canada within this product shall not be construed as constituting an endorsement by the Government of Canada of our product.

or any other notice approved in writing by Canada.

The problem here is that this creates what we call the “Nascar effect.” As you use more and more government data, these “prominent” displays of attribution begin to pile up. If I’m using data from 3 different governments, each that requires attribution, pretty soon all your going to see are the attribution statements, and not the map or other information that you are looking for! I outlined this problem in more detail here. The UK Government has handled this issue much, much more gracefully.

Indeed, speaking of the UK Open Government License, I really wish our government had just copied it wholesale. We have a similar government system and legal systems so I see no reason why it would not easily translate to Canada. It is radically better than what is offered on data.gc.ca and, by adopting it, we might begin to move towards a single government license within Commonwealth countries, which would be a real win. Of course, I’d love it if we adopted the PDDL, but the UK Open Government License would be okay to.

In Summary

The launch of data.gc.ca is an important first step. It gives those of us interested in open data and open government a vehicle by which to get more data open and improve the accountability, transparency as well as business and social innovation. That said, there is much work to be done still: getting more data up and, more importantly, addressing the significant concerns around the license. I have spoken to Treasury Board President Stockwell Day about these concerns and he is very interested and engaged by them. My hope is that with more Canadians expressing their concerns, and with better understanding by ministerial and political staff, we can land on the right license and help find ways to improve the website and program. That’s why we to beta launches in the tech world, hopefully it is something the government will be able to do here too.


Apologies for any typos, trying to get this out quickly, please let me know if you find any.

MP Jim Abbott: The Face of the Sad State of Open Data in Canada

“I guess my attack to this has always been from the perspective of are we working in a bubble. In other words, when this was… under this initiative by the President, how quick was the takeup by the population at large? Not by the people that we affectionately call geeks, or people who don’t have a life, or don’t come up out of the dark, or whatever. The average person walking through Times Square I guess is what I’m trying to say. How quick was their take up, and in fact has there been a takeup?”

Jim Abbott, ETHI Meeting No. 47, Open Government Study, March 2, 2011

Yes, the above quote comes from Jim Abbott, Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Kootenay—Columbia during the testimony of Beth Noveck, President Obama’s former Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government (her statement can be found here). You can see the remarks in the online video here, at around the 1:17:50 mark.

First, I want to be clear. This is disappointing, not on a political level, but on an individual level. During my testimony for the ETHI committee (which I intend to blog about) I found members of all parties – NDP, Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and Conservative – deeply interested in the subject matter, asking thoughtful questions and expressing legitimate concerns. Indeed, I was struck by Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative MP for Napean-Carleton, who asked a number of engaging questions, particularly around licenses. That’s a level of sophistication around the issue that many people don’t care to ask about. Moreover, many of the committee members grasped the economic and social opportunity around open data.

Jim Abbott, in contrast, may believe that describing technologists and geeks as people who “don’t have a life” or “don’t come up out of the dark” is affectionate, but I’m not so sure these stereotypes are so endearing, especially given how they aren’t true. Moreover, his comments are particularly unfortunate as it’s the people he (affectionately) demeans who created RIM, OpenText, Cognos, and thousands of other successful technology companies that pump billions into the Canadian economy, employ hundreds of thousands, and do actually impact the “person on the street.” But a few simple demeaning words can make one forget these contributions or worse, make them sound insignificant.

Of course, it will be the work of these people that creates the open data applications that, in the US at least, already impact the average person walking through Times Square (consider this lifesaving app that was created by a hacker using opendata). Indeed, there are a growing number of businesses consuming and using open data, some even valued in the billions of dollars and used by millions of americans every day.

The sad part is they will only be available to the people in Times Square, or Trafalgar Square or on the Champs-Élysées since the Americans, British and French all have national open data portals (among numerous other countries). There will be no uptake for people on Wellington St., Queen St., Robson St. or wherever, since without a national open data portal in Canada, there can be no uptake. (It’s not easy to be behind the French government on an issue related to the digital economy, but we’ve somehow managed).

But forget the economic opportunity. There is also the question of government transparency and accountability. What makes the above statement so disappointing is that it exposes how an MP who for so long railed for greater transparency in government, has suddenly decided that transparency is no longer important unless “there is sufficient uptake.”

One wonders what Jim Abbott of 2000 would say of Jim Abbott of 2011? Because back in a pre-2001 era Jim Abbott had fantastic quotes like this:

I suggest in the strongest way possible to the minister that even if we can get him to clear up the history of the Canada Information Office, which I do not have a lot of hope for but I am asking for, from this point forward there must be proper transparency of the Canada Information Office. The country needs openness and transparency because democracy cannot be true democracy without openness and transparency.

Jim Abbott, June 8th, 2000 / 11:10 a.m.

and this

Second, the difficulty the government has created with the Canada Information Office is that many of the contracts and much of the ongoing activity have been conducted in a way that does not befit what we are in Canada, which is a democracy. In a democracy the people depend on the people in the Chamber to hold the government accountable for the affairs of the government and to be as transparent as possible.

Jim Abbott, June 8th, 2000 / 11:10 a.m.

and this

It will never have the transparency that it must have in a democracy. It is just absolutely unacceptable.

Jim Abbott, June 16th, 1995 / 3:25 p.m.

I could go on…

(If you are wondering how I was able to dig up these quotes, please check out OpenParliament.ca – it really is extraordinary tool and again, shows the power of open (parliamentary) data).

But more importantly, and on point, it seems to me that Jim Abbott from the year 2000 would see open data as a important way to ensure greater transparency. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Canada Information Office had had its budget and expenditures available as open data? Wouldn’t that have brought about some of the accountability the 2000 Jim Abbott would have sought? Sadly, and strangely, Jim Abbott of 2011 no longer seems to feel that way.

Yes, if only he could meet Jim Abbott of 2000, I think they’d have a great debate.

Of course, Jim Abbott of 2000 can’t meet Jim Abbott of 2011, and so it is up to us to (re)educate him. And on that front, I have, so far, clearly failed the tech community, the open data community and the government accountability community. Hopefully with time and more effort, that will change. Maybe next time I’m in Ottawa, Jim Abbott and I can grab coffee and I can try again.

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