Tag Archives: government

Why is Finding a Post Box so Hard?

Sometimes it is the small things that show how government just gets it all so wrong.

Last Thursday The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac has a little bit on the US Post Office and its declining fortunes as people move away from mail. There is no doubt that the post offices days are numbered, but that doesn’t mean the decline has to be as steep as it is. Besides there are things they could be doing to make life a little easier to use them (and god knows they should be doing anything they can, to be more appealing).

Take, for example, the humble post office box. They can be frustratingly hard to locate. Consider Broadway and Cambie – one of the busiest intersections in Vancouver – and yet there is no post box at the intersection. (I eventually found it one block east on broadway) but I carried around a letter for 3 weeks before I eventually found one.

In short why is there not digital map (or for techies, and API) for post box locations? I could imagine all sorts of people that might make use of it. Would it be nice to just find out – where is the closest post box to where I’m standing? More importantly, it might actually help the post office attract a few extra customers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt customer service. I’ve wondered for a couple of years why it doesn’t publish this data set.

Turns out I’m not the only with this frustration. My friend Steven Tannock has channeled his frustration into a simple app called Wherepost.ca. It’s a simple website – optimized for mobile phone use – that allows users to add post boxes as well as find the one nearest to them. In short, Steven’s trying to create a public data set of post box locations by crowd sourcing the problem. If Canada Post won’t be helpful… we’ll help one another.

Launched on Thursday with 20 post office box locations, there are now over 400 boxes mapped (mostly in the Vancouver area) with several dozen users contributing. In addition, Steven tells me users in at least 2 other countries have asked for new icons so they can add post boxes where they live. It seems Canadians aren’t the only ones frustrated about not knowing where the nearest post box is.

The ideal, of course, would be for Canada Post to publish an API of all post box locations. I suspect however, that they either don’t actually know where they all are in a digital form (at which point they should really help Steven as he is doing them a huge service) or revealing their location will be seeing as sacrificing some important IP that people should pay for. Remember, this is an organization that refuses to make Postal Code data open, a critical data set for companies, non-profits and governments.

This isn’t the worlds fanciest app but its simplicity is what makes it so great, and so useful. Check it out at WherePost.ca and… of course, add a post box if you see one.



The State of Open Data 2011

What is the state of the open data movement? Yesterday, during my opening keynote at the Open Government Data Camp (held this year in Warsaw, Poland) I sought to follow up on my talk from last year’s conference. Here’s my take of where we are today (I’ll post/link to a video of the talk as soon as the Open Knowledge Foundation makes it available).

Successes of the Past Year: Crossing the Chasm

1. More Open Data Portals

One of the things that has been amazing to witness in 2011 is the veritable explosion of Open Data portals around the world. Today there are well over 50 government data catalogs with more and more being added. The most notable of these was probably the Kenyan Open Data catalog which shows how far, and wide, the open data movement has grown.

2. Better Understanding and More Demand

The things about all these portals is that they are the result of a larger shift. Specifically, more and more government officials are curious about what open data is. This is not to say that understanding has radically shifted, but many people in government (and in politics) now know the term, believe there is something interesting going on in this space, and want to learn more. Consequently, in a growing number of places there is less and less headwind against us. Rather than screaming from the rooftops, we are increasingly being invited in the front door.

3. More Experimentation

Finally, what’s also exciting is the increased experimentation in the open data space. The number of companies and organizations trying to engage open data users is growing. ScraperWiki, the DataHub, BuzzData, Socrata, Visua.ly, are some of the products and resources that have emerged out of the open data space. And the types of research and projects that are emerging – the tracking of the Icelandic volcano eruptions, the emergence of hacks and hackers, micro projects (like my own Recollect.net) and the research showing that open data could be generating savings of £8.5 million a year to governments in the Greater Manchester area, is deeply encouraging.

The Current State: An Inflection Point

The exciting thing about open data is that increasingly we are helping people – public servants, politicians, business owners and citizens imagine a different future, one that is more open, efficient and engaging. Our impact is still limited, but the journey is still in its early days. More importantly, thanks to success (number 2 above) our role is changing. So what does this mean for the movement right now?

Externally to the movement, the work we are doing is only getting more relevant. We are in an era of institution failure. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall St. there is a recognition that our institutions no longer sufficiently serve us. Open data can’t solve this problem, but it is part of the solution. The challenge of the old order and the institutions it fostered is that its organizing principle is built around the management (control) of processes, it’s been about the application of the industrial production model to government services. This means it can only move so fast, and because of its strong control orientation, can only allow for so much creativity (and adaption). Open data is about putting the free flow of information at the heart of government – both internally and externally – with the goal of increasing government’s metabolism and decentralizing societies’ capacity to respond to problems. Our role is not obvious to the people in those movements, and we should make it clearer.

Internally to the movement, we have another big challenge. We are at a critical inflection point. For years we have been on the outside, yelling that open data matters. But now we are being invited inside. Some of us want to rush in, keen to make advances, others want to hold back, worried about being co-opted. To succeed, it is essential we must become more skilled at walking this difficult line: engaging with governments and helping them make the right decisions, while not being co-opted or sacrificing our principles. Choosing to not engage would, in my opinion, be to abscond from our responsibility as citizens and open data activists. This is a difficult transition, but it will be made easier if we at least acknowledge it, and support one another in it.

Our Core Challenges: What’s next

Looking across the open data space, my own feeling is that there are three core challenges that are facing the open data movement that threaten to compromise all the successes we’ve currently enjoyed.

1. The Compliance Trap

One key risk for open data is that all our work ends up being framed as a transparency initiative and thus making data available is reduced to being a compliance issue for government departments. If this is how our universe is framed I suspect in 5-10 years governments, eager to save money and cut some services, will choose to cut open data portals as a cost saving initiative.

Our goal is not to become a compliance issue. Our goal is to make governments understand that they are data management organizations and that they need to manage their data assets with the same rigour with which they manage physical assets like roads and bridges. We are as much about data governance as we are open data. This means we need to have a vision for government, one where data becomes a layer of the government architecture. Our goal is to make data platform one that not only citizens outside of government can build on, but one that government reconstructs its policy apparatus as well as its IT systems at top of. Achieving this will ensure that open data gets hardwired right into government and so cannot be easily shut down.

2. Data Schemas

This year, in the lead up to the Open Data Camp, the Open Knowledge Foundation created a map of open data portals from around the world. This was fun to look at, and I think should be the last time we do it.

We are getting to a point where the number of data portals is becoming less and less relevant. Getting more portals isn’t going to enable open data to scale more. What is going to allow us to scale is establishing common schemas for data sets that enable them to work across jurisdictions. The single most widely used open government data set is transit data, which because it has been standardized by the GTFS is available across hundreds of jurisdictions. This standardization has not only put the data into google maps (generating millions of uses everyday) but has also led to an explosion of transit apps around the world. Common standards will let us scale. We cannot forget this.

So let’s stop mapping open data portals, and start mapping datasets that adhere to common schemas. Given that open data is increasingly looked upon favourably by governments, creating these schemas is, I believe, now the central challenge to the open data movement.

3. Broadening the Movement

I’m impressed by the hundreds and hundreds of people here at the Open Data Camp in Warsaw. It is fun to be able to recognize so many of the faces here, the problem is that I can recognize too many of them. We need to grow this movement. There is a risk that we will become complacent, that we’ll enjoy the movement we’ve created and, more importantly, our roles within it. If that happens we are in trouble. Despite our successes we are far from reaching critical mass.

The simple question I have for us is: Where is the United Way, Google, Microsoft, the Salvation Army, Oxfam, and Greenpeace? We’ll know were are making progress when companies – large and small – as well as non-profits – start understanding how open government data can change their world for the better and so want to help us advance the cause.

Each of us needs to go out and start engaging these types of organizations and helping them see this new world and the potential it creates for them to make money or advance their own issues. The more we can embed ourselves into other’s networks, the more allies we will recruit and the stronger we will be.


Brain Candy – Great Quotes from Yesterday

I’m in San Francisco to co-chair the Code for America Summit this week, so lots going on, and some deep blog posts in the works. But first. Fun! Here are some of my favourite quotes I stumbled upon or heard in the last 24 hours.

“The 4-Hour Body” reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the SkyMall catalog.

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times review of the Four Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss

The entire review is pure genius. Definitely worth reading.

But more quotes await!

“Micro-managing isn’t that third thing that Amazon does better than us, by the way. I mean, yeah, they micro-manage really well, but I wouldn’t list it as a strength or anything. I’m just trying to set the context here, to help you understand what happened. We’re talking about a guy [Jeff Bezos] who in all seriousness has said on many public occasions that people should be paying him to work at Amazon. He hands out little yellow stickies with his name on them, reminding people “who runs the company” when they disagree with him. The guy is a regular… well, Steve Jobs, I guess. Except without the fashion or design sense. Bezos is super smart; don’t get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.”

Steve Yegge in a now no longer public but still accessible assessment of why Google doesn’t get platforms.

The broader read is fantastic, but this quote – mentioned to me by a friend – I thought was both fun and insightful. There is something to be said for super obsessive bosses. They care about their business. It is worth noting that both Jobs and Bezos founded their companies. A lot of other companies could do with this kind of love and attention – even if, in high doses, it can be totally toxic. It’s a fascinating tension.

So yes, tech and the four hour work week? I must be proximity to the valley… so let’s get away from that.

How about #occupywallst? There is a very interesting analysis of the data behind the We are the 99% tumblr feed over at rortybomb, definitely worth a read. But I was really struck by this quote about the nature of the demands:

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay.  They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share.  The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy.  There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.”  It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.

Ooph. Now that is depressing. But check out his concluding remark.

We have piecemeal, leaky versions of each of these in our current liberal social safety net.  Having collated all these responses, I think completing these projects should be the ultimate goal of the 99%

This is what really strikes me. Here you have a welfare state that isn’t even that big by Western standards but is still not trivial in the resources it consumes, and yet it delivers a pretty crappy outcome to a huge number of citizens. It may be that enough funding from the wealthy restores that system and makes it work. But the financial crises in Europe would seem to suggest otherwise. For many, especially in America, the status quo is unacceptable, and the ability to go back may no longer exist. So until we start thinking about what the future looks like, one free of the systems of the past, we’re probably in trouble.

But any effort here is going to run into a pretty serious brick wall when it comes to coalition building. Consider this amazing line from this Change.org petition:

Rhee uses Change.org to post deceptively worded petitions with such titles as: “Join the Fight to Save Great Teachers” and “Pay Effective Teachers What They Deserve.” When you delve into it, she’s working to weaken unions and institute merit pay for teachers. These are insidious, corporate, anti-progressive reforms. Change.org should not be participating in Rhee’s union busting.

Merit pay is an insidious, corporate, anti-progressive reform? You have to be pretty far out on the left to believe that. Indeed, the notion of merit sat at the heart of the progressive revolution. Now I’m no fan of Rhee, but I’m also a believer that good work should be rewarded and, well, bad work should be punished. That isn’t saying your pay should be linked to test scores, but it also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be linked to nothing other than tenure. If that is union busting, then the progressive movement it totally dead. This is why I think progressive reform is stopped dead in its tracks. The traditional left wants to defend the status quo of government (while happily attacking the equally problematic status quo of wall st.) while I suspect others, many of whom are sympathetic to the #occupywallst message, are actually equally uncomfortable with the status quo in both the public and private sphere.

This is bad news for those of us who don’t want to return to the Gilded Age. There may not be a coalition that can counter the conservatives on the left and the right. Maybe there needs to be a collapse of this complex system before there can be a rebuilding. It’s a pretty depressing and sobering thought.

Okay. so, you got suckered in by a few fun quotes only to find yourself in the serious world of protest politics. Sorry about that, but that’s the kind of technology fueled, politically driven 24 hours its been.

Hope to see you tomorrow…

Neo-Progressive Watch: Rahm Emanuel vs. Teachers Union

Anyone who read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope will have been struck with the amount of time the then aspiring presidential candidate spent writing about public education policy. More notably, he seemed to acknowledge that any effort at education reform was, at some point, going to butt heads with teachers unions and that new approaches were either going to have to be negotiated or imposed. It was a point of tension that wasn’t much talked about in the reviews I read. But it always struck me as interesting that here was Obama, a next generation progressive, railing against the conservatism of what is possible the original pillar of the progressive movement: public education.

All of this has, of course, been decidedly forgotten given both the bigger problems the president has faced and by the fact that he’s been basically disinterested in monkeying around in public education policy since taking office. That’s why it is still more fascinating to see what his disciples are doing as they get involved in levels of government that are in more direct contact with this policy area. Here, none is more interesting to watch than Rahm Emanuel.

This Saturday my friend Amy L. pointed me to a New York Times article outlining the most recent battle between Rahm Emanuel and the teacher’s union. My own take is that the specifics of the article are irrelevant, what matters is the broad theme. In short, Rahm Emanuel is on a short timeline. He needs to produce results immediately since local elections both happen more frequently and one is much, much closer to the citizen. That said, he doesn’t have to deliver uniform results, progress, in of itself may be sufficient. Indeed, a little experimentation is profoundly good given it can tease out faster and cheaper ways to deliver said results.

In contrast, the teacher’s union faces few of the pressures experienced by Rahm. It can afford to move at a slower pace and, more importantly, wants a uniform level of treatment across the entire system. Indeed, its entire structure is built around the guarantee of uniform treatment for its members. This uniformity is a value that evolved parallel to but not of progressive thinking. It is an artifact of industrial production that gets confused with progressive thought because of the common temporal lineage.

This skirmish offers a window into the major battle that is going to dominate the our politics in about a decade. I increasingly suspect we are moving into a world where the possibilities for education, thanks to the web and social networks, is going to be completely altered. What we deem is possible, what parents demand, and the skills that are seen as essential, are all going to shift. Our educational system, its schools, the school boards and, of course, the unions, are still bound in a world of mass production – shifting students from room to room to prepare them for the labour and production jobs of the 20th century. No matter how gifted the teachers (and there are many who are exceedingly gifted) they remain bound by the structure of the system the education system, the school boards, and the unions, have built and enforce.

Of course, what is going to be in demand are students that can thrive in the world of mass collaboration and peer production in the 21st century -behaviours that are generally viewed as “cheating” in the current model. And parents who are successful in 21st century jobs are going to be the first to ensure their children get the “right” kind of education. Which is going to put them at odds with the current education system.

This is all this is to say that the real question crisis is: how quickly will educational systems be able to adapt? Here both the school boards and the unions play an enormous role, but it is the unions that, it would appear, may be a constraining factor. If they find that having Rahm engage schools directly feels like a threat, I suspect they are going to find the next 20 years a rough, rough ride. Something akin to how the newspapers have felt regarding the arrival of the internet and craigslist.

What terrifies me most, is that unless we can devise a system where teachers are measured and so good results can be both rewarded and shared… and where parents and students have more choices around education, then families (that can afford to) are going to vote with their feet. In fact, you already see it in my home town.

The myth in Vancouver is that high property values are driving families – and thus children – out of the city. But this is patently not true. The fantastic guys over at Bing Thom Architects wrote a report on student populations in Vancouver. According to their research, in the last 10 years the estimated number of elementary and secondary aged children in Vancouver has risen by 3% (around 2,513 new students). And yet, the number of students enrolled in public education facilities has declined by 5.46%. (around 3,092 students). In fact, the Vancouver School Boards numbers seem to indicate the decline may be more pronounced.

In the meantime the number of private/independent schools has exploded by 43% going from 39 to 68 with enrollment increases of 13.8%. (Yes that does leave a surplus of students unaccounted for, I suspect they are also in private/independent schools, but outside of the City of Vancouver’s boundaries). As a public school graduate myself, one who had truly fantastic teachers but who also benefited from enormous choice (IB, French Immersion) the numbers of the past decade are very interesting to immerse oneself in.

Correct or incorrect, it would seem parents are opting for schools that offer a range of choices around education. Of course, it is only the parents who can afford to do this that are doing it. But that makes the outcome worse, not better. With or without the unions, education is going to get radically rethought. It would be nice if it was the public sector that lead that revolution, or at least was on the vanguard of it. But if our public sector managers and teachers are caught arguing over how to adjust the status quo by increments, it is hard to see how our education policy is going to make a quantum leap into the 21st century.

Shared IT Services across the Canadian Government – three opportunities

Earlier this week the Canadian Federal Government announced it will be creating Shared Services Canada which will absorb the resources and functions associated with the delivery of email, data centres and network services from 44 departments.

These types of shared services projects are always fraught with danger. While they sometimes are successful, they are often disasters. Highly disruptive with little to show for results (and eventually get unwound). However, I suspect there is a significant amount of savings that can be made and I remain optimistic. With luck the analogy here is the work outgoing US CIO Vivek Kundra accomplished as he has sought to close down and consolidate 800 data centres across the US which is yielding some serious savings.

So here’s what I’m hoping Shared Services Canada will mean:

1) A bigger opportunity for Open Source

What I’m still more hopeful about – although not overly optimistic – is the role that open source solutions could play in the solutions Shared Services Canada will implement. Over on the Drupal site, one contributor claims government officials have been told to hold off buying web content management systems as the government prepares to buy a single solution for across all departments.

If the government is serious about lowering its costs it absolutely must rethink its procurement models so that open source solutions can at least be made a viable option. If not this whole exercise will mean the government may save money, but it will be the we move from 5 expensive solutions to one expensive solution variety.

On the upside some of that work has clearly taken place. Already there are several federal government websites running on Drupal such as this Ministry of Public Works website, the NRCAN and DND intranet. Moreover, there are real efforts in the open source community to accommodate government. In the United States OpenPublic has fostered a version of Drupal designed for government’s needs.

Open source solutions have the added bonus of allowing you the option of using more local talent, which, if stimulus is part of the goal, would be wise. Also, any open source solutions fostered by the federal government could be picked up by the provinces, creating further savings to tax payers. As a bonus, you can also fire incompetent implementors, something that needs to happen a little more often in government IT.

2) More accountability

Ministers Ambrose and Clement are laser focused on finding savings – pretty much every ministry needs to find 5 or 10% savings across the board. I also know both speak passionately about managing tax payers dollars: “Canadians work hard for their money and expect our Government to manage taxpayers dollars responsibly, Shared Services Canada will have a mandate to streamline IT, save money, and end waste and duplication.”

Great. I agree. So one of Shared Service Canada’s first act should be to follow in the footsteps of another Vivek Kundra initiative and recreate his incredibly successful IT Dashboard. Indeed it was by using the dashboard Vivek was able to “cut the time in half to deliver meaningful [IT system] functionality and critical services, and reduced total budgeted [Federal government IT] costs by over $3 billion.” Now that some serious savings. It’s a great example of how transparency can drive effective organizational change.

And here’s the kicker. The White House open sourced the IT Dashboard (the code can be downloaded here). So while it will require some work adapting it, the software is there and a lot of the heavy work has been done. Again, if we are serious about this, the path forward is straightforward.

3) More open data

Speaking of transparency… one place shared services could really come in handy is creating some data warehouses for hosting critical government data sets (ideally in the cloud). I suspect there are a number of important datasets that are used by public servants across ministries, and so getting them on a robust platform that is accessible would make a lot of sense. This of course, would also be an ideal opportunity to engage in a massive open data project. It might be easier to create policy for making the data managed by Shared Service Canada “open.” Indeed, this blog post covers some of the reasons why now is the time to think about that issue.

So congratulations on the big move everyone and I hope these suggestions are helpful. Certainly we’ll be watching with interest – we can’t have a 21st century government unless we have 21st century infrastructure, and you’re now the group responsible for it.

Lost Open Data Opportunities

Even sometimes my home town of Vancouver gets it wrong.

Reading Chad Skelton’s blog (which I frequently regularly and recommend to my fellow Vancouverites) I was reminded of the great work he did creating an interactive visualization of the city’s parking tickets as part of a series around parking in Vancouver. Indeed, it is worth noting that the entire series was powered by data supplied by the city. Sadly, it just wasn’t (and still isn’t) open data. Quite the opposite, it was data that was wrestled, with enormous difficulty, via an FOI (ATIP) request.


In the same blog post Chad recounts how he struggled to get the parking data from the city:

Indeed, the last major FOI request I made to the city was for its parking-ticket data. I had to fight the city tooth and nail to get them to cough up the information in the format I wanted it in (for months their FOI coordinator claimed, falsely, that she couldn’t provide the records in spreadsheet format). Then, when the parking ticket series finally ran, I got an email from the head of parking enforcement. He was wondering how he could get reprints of the series — he thought it was so good he wanted to hand it out to new parking enforcement officers during their training.

What is really frustrating about this paragraph is the last sentence. Obviously the people who find the most value in this analysis and tool are the city staff who manage parking infractions. So here is someone who, for free(!), provides an analysis and some stories that they now use to train new officers and he had to fight to get the data. The city would have been poorer without Chad’s story and analysis. And yet it fought him. Worse, an important player in the civic space (and an open data ally) feels frustrated by the city.

There are of course, other uses I could imagine for this data. I could imagine the data embedded into an application (ideally one like Washington DC’s Park IT DC – which let’s you find parking meters on a map, identify if they are available or not, and see local car crime rates for the area) so that you can access the risk of getting a ticket if you choose not to pay. This feels like the worse case scenario for the city, and frankly, it doesn’t feel that bad and would probably not affect people’s behaviour that much. But there may be other important uses of this data – it may correlate in some interestingly and unpredictably against other events – connections that if made and shared, might actually allow the city to leverage its enforcement officers more efficiently and effectively.

Of course, we won’t know what those could be, since the data isn’t shared, but it is the kind of thing Vancouver should be doing, given the existence of its open data portal. But all government’s should take note. There is a cost to not sharing data. Lost opportunities, lost insights and value, lost allies and networks of people interested in contributing to your success. It’s all our loss.

Just a Click Away Keynote Slides

A little over two months ago I gave a keynote at the Just a Click Away Conference in Vancouver. The conference was a gathering for legal information and education experts – for example the excellent people that provide legal aid. My central challenge to them was thinking about how they could further collapse the transaction costs around getting legal assistance and/or completing common legal transactions.

I had a great time at the event and it was a real pleasure to meet Allan Seckel – the former head of British Columbia’s public service. I was deeply impressed by his comments and commitment to both effective and open government. As one of the key forces behind the Citizens at the Centre report he’s pushed a number of ideas forward that I think other governments should be paying attention to.

So, back to the presentation… I’ve been promising to get my slides from the event up and so here they are:

Access to Information is Fatally Broken… You Just Don’t Know it Yet

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about access to information, and am working on a longer analysis, but in the short term I wanted to share two graphs – graphs that outline why Access to Information (Freedom of Information in the United States) is unsustainable and will, eventually, need to be radically rethought.

First, this analysis is made possible by the enormous generosity of the Canadian Federal Information Commissioners Office which several weeks ago sent me a tremendous amount of useful data regarding access to information requests over the past 15 years at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS).

The first figure I created shows both the absolute number of Access to Information Requests (ATIP) since 1996 as well as the running year on year percentage increase. The dotted line represents the average percentage increase over this time. As you can see the number of ATIP requests has almost tripled in this time period. This is very significant growth – the kind you’d want to see in a well run company. Alas, for those processing ATIP requests, I suspect it represents a significant headache.

That’s because, of course, such growth is likely unmanageable. It might be manageable if say, the costs of handling each requests was dropping rapidly. If such efficiencies were being wrestled out of the system of routing and sorting requests then we could simply ignore the chart above. Sadly, as the next chart I created demonstrates this is not the case.


In fact the costs of managing these transactions has not tripled. It has more than quadrupled. This means that not only are the number of transactions increasing at about 8% a year, the cost of fulfilling each of those transactions is itself rising at a rate above inflation.

Now remember, I’m not event talking about the effectiveness of ATIP. I’m not talking about how quickly requests are turned around (as the Information Commissioner has discussed, it is broadly getting worse) nor am I discussing less information is being restricted (it’s not, things are getting worse). These are important – and difficult to assess – metrics.

I am, instead, merely looking at the economics of ATIP and the situation looks grim. Basically two interrelated problems threaten the current system.

1) As the number of ATIP requests increase, the manpower required to answer them also appears to be increasing. At some point the hours required to fulfill all requests sent to a ministry will equal the total hours of manpower at that ministry’s  disposal. Yes that day may be far off, but they day where it hits some meaningful percentage – say 1%, 3% or 5% of total hours worked at Treasury Board, may not be that far off. That’s a significant drag on efficiency. I recall talking to a foreign service officer who mentioned that during the Afghan prisoner scandal an entire department of foreign service officers – some 60 people in all – were working full time on assessing access to information requests. That’s an enormous amount of time, energy and money.

2) Even more problematic than the number of work hours is the cost. According to the data I received, Access to Information requests costs The Treasury Board $47,196,030 last year. Yes, that’s 47 with a “million” behind it. And remember, this is just one ministry. Multiply that by 25 (let’s pretend that’s the number of ministries, there are actually many more, but I’m trying to be really conservative with my assumptions) and it means last year the government may have spent over $1.175 Billion fulfilling ATIP requests. That is a staggering number. And its growing.

Transparency, apparently, is very, very expensive. At some point, it risks becoming too expensive.

Indeed, ATIP reminds me of healthcare. It’s completely unsustainable, and absolutely necessary.

To be clear, I’m not saying we should get rid of ATIP. That, I believe, to be folly. It is and remains a powerful tool for holding government accountable. Nor do I believe that requesters should pay for ATIP requests as a way to offset costs (like BC Ferries does) – this creates a barrier that punishes the most marginalized and threatened, while enabling only the wealthy or well financed to hold government accountable.

I do think it suggests that governments need to radical rethink how manage ATIP. More importantly I think it suggests that government needs to rethink how it manages information. Open data, digital documents are all part of a strategy that, I hope, can lighten the load. I’ve also felt that if/as government’s move their work onto online platforms like GCPEDIA, we should simply make non-classified pages open to the public on something like a 5 year timeline. This could also help reduce requests.

I’ve more ideas, but at its core we need a system rethink. ATIP is broken. You may not know it yet, but it is. The question is, what are we going to do before it peels off the cliff? Can we invent something new and better in time?

What I’m doing at Code for America

For the last two weeks – and for much of January – I’m in San Francisco helping out with Code for America. What’s Code for America? Think Teach for America, but rather than deploying people into classrooms to help provide positive experiences for students and teachers while attempting to shift the culture of school districts, Code for America has fellows work with cities to help develop reusable code to save cities money, make local government as accessible as your favorite website, and help shift the government’s culture around technology.

code-for-america1-150x112The whole affair is powered by a group of 20 amazing fellows and an equally awesome staff that has been working for months to make it all come together. My role – in comparison – is relatively minor, I head up the Code for America Institute – a month long educational program the fellows go through when they first arrive.  I wanted to write about what I’ve been trying to do both because of the openness ideals of Code for America and to share any lessons for others who might attempt a similar effort.

First, to understand what I’m doing, you have to understand the goal. On the surface, to an outsider, the Code for America change process might look something like this:

  1. Get together some crazy talented computer programers (hackers, if you want to make the government folks nervous)
  2. Unleash them on a partner city with a specific need
  3. Take resulting output and share across cities

Which of course, would mistakenly frame the problem as technical. However, Code for America is not about technology. It’s about culture change. The goal is about rethinking and reimagining  government as better, faster, cheaper and adaptive. It’s about helping think of the ways its culture can embrace government as a platform, as open and as highly responsive.

I’m helping (I think) because I’ve enjoyed some success in getting government’s to think differently. I’m not a computer developer and at their core, these successes were never technology problems. The challenge is understanding how the system works, identify the leverage points for making change, develop partners and collaborate to engage those leverage points, and do whatever it takes to ensure it all comes together.

So this is the message and the concept the speakers are trying to impart on the fellows. Or, in other words, my job is to help unleash the already vibrant change agents within the 20 awesome fellows and make them effective in the government context.

So what have we done so far?

We’ve focused on three areas:

1) Understand Government: Some of the fellows are new to government, so we’ve had presentations from local government experts like Jay Nath, Ed Reiskin and Peter Koht as well as the Mayor of Tuscon’s chief of staff (to give a political perspective). And of course, Tim O’Reilly has spoken about how he thinks government must evolve in the 21st century. The goal: understand the system as well as, understand and respect the actors within that system.

2) Initiate & Influence: Whether it is launching you own business (Eric Ries on startups), starting a project (Luke Closs on Vantrash) or understanding what happens when two cultures come together (Caterina Fake on Yahoo buying Flickr) or myself on negotiating, influence and collaboration, our main challenges will not be technical, they will be systems based and social. If we are to build projects and systems that are successful and sustainable we need to ask the right questions and engage with these systems respectfully as we try to shift them.

3) Plan & Focus: Finally, we’ve had experts in planning and organizing. People like Allen Gunn (Gunner) and the folks from Cooper Design, who’ve helped the fellows think about what they want, where they are going, and what they want to achieve. Know thyself, be prepared, have a plan.

The last two weeks will continue to pick up these themes but also give the fellows more time to (a) prepare for the work they will be doing with their partner cities; and (b) give them more opportunities to learn from one another. We’re half way through the institute at this point and I’m hoping the experience has been a rich – if sometimes overwhelming – one. Hopefully I’ll have an update again at the end of the month.

One Simple Step to Figure out if your Government "gets" Information Technology

Chris Moore has a good post up on his blog at the moment that asks “Will Canadian Cities ever be Strategic?” In it (and it is very much worth reading) he hits on a theme I’ve focused on in many of my talks to government but that I think is also relevant to citizens who care about how technologically sophisticated their government is (which is a metric of how relevant you think you government is going to be in a few years).

If you want to know how serious your government or ministry is about technology there is a first simple step you can take: look at the org chart.

Locate the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Simple question: Is he or she part of the senior executive team?

If yes – there is hope that your government (or the ministry you are looking at) may have some strategic vision for IT.

If no – and this would put you in the bucket with about 80% of local governments, and provincial/federal ministries – then your government almost certainly does not have a strong vision, and it isn’t going to be getting one any time soon.

As Chris also notes and I’ve been banging away at (such as during my keynote to MISA Ontario), in most governments in Canada the CIO/CTO does not sit at the executive table. At the federal level they are frequently Director Generals, (or lower), not Assistant Deputy Minister level roles. At the local level, they often report into someone at the C-level.

This is insanity.

I’m trying to think of a Fortune 500 company – particularly one which operates in the knowledge economy – with this type of reporting structure. The business of government is about managing information… to better regulate, manage resources and/or deliver services. You can’t be talking about how to do that without having the CIO/CTO being part of that conversation.

But that’s what happens almost every single day in many govenrment orgs.

Sadly, it gets worse.

In most organizations the CIO/CTO reports into the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). This really tells you what the organization thinks of technology: It is a cost centre that needs to be contained.

We aren’t going to reinvent government when the person in charge of the infrastructure upon which most of the work is done, the services are delivered and pretty much everything else the org does depends on, isn’t even part of the management team or part of the organizations strategic conversations.

It’s a sad state of affairs and indicative of why our government’s are so slow in engaging in new technology.