Tag Archives: OGP

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


On Friday the Canadian Government released its draft national action plan. Although not mentioned overtly in the document, these plans are mandated by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), in which member countries must draft National Action Plans every two years where they lay out tangible goals.

I’ve both written reviews about these plans before and offered suggestions about what should be in them. So this is not my first rodeo, nor is it for the people drafting them.

Purpose of this piece

In the very niche world of open government there are basically two types of people. Those who know about the OGP and Canada’s participation (hello 0.01%!), and those who don’t (hello overwhelming majority of people — excited you are reading this).

If you are a journalist, parliamentarian, hill staffer, academic, public servant, consultant, vendor, or everyday interested citizen already following this topic, here are thoughts and ideas to help shape your criticisms and/or focus your support and advice to government. If you are new to this world, this post can provide context about the work the Canadian Government is doing around transparency to help facilitate your entrance into this world. I’ll be succinct — as the plan is long, and your time is finite.

That said, if you want more details about thoughts, please email me — happy to share more.

The Good

First off, there is lots of good in the plan. The level of ambition is quite high, a number of notable past problems have been engaged, and the goals are tangible.

While there are worries about wording, there are nonetheless a ton of things that have been prioritized in the document that both myself and many people in the community have sought to be included in past plans. Please note, that “prioritized” is distinct from “this is the right approach/answer.” Among these are:

  • Opening up the Access to Information Act so we can update it for the 21st century. (Commitment 1)
  • Providing stronger guarantees that Government scientists — and the content they produce — is made available to the public, including access to reporters (Commitment 14)
  • Finding ways to bake transparency and openness more firmly into the culture and processes of the public service (Commitment 6 and Commitment 7)
  • Ensuring better access to budget and fiscal data (Commitment 9, Commitment 10 and Commitment 11)
  • Coordinating different levels of government around common data standards to enable Canadians to better compare information across jurisdictions (Commitment 16)
  • In addition, the publishing of Mandate Letters (something that was part of the Ontario Open by Default report I helped co-author) is a great step. If nothing else, it helps public servants understand how to better steer their work. And the establishment of Cabinet Committee on Open Government is worth watching.

Lots of people, including myself, will find things to nit pick about the above. And it is always nice to remember:

a) It is great to have a plan we can hold the government accountable to, it is better than the alternative of no plan

b) I don’t envy the people working on this plan. There is a great deal to do, and not a lot of time. We should find ways to be constructive, even when being critical

Three Big Ideas the Plan Gets Right

Encouragingly, there are three ideas that run across several commitments in the plan that feel thematically right.

Changing Norms and Rules

For many of the commitments, the plan seeks to not simply get tactical wins but find ways to bake changes into the fabric of how things get done. Unlike previous plans, one reads a real intent to shift culture and make changes that are permanent and sustainable.

Executing on this is exceedingly difficult. Changing culture is both hard to achieve and measure. And implementing reforms that are difficult or impossible to reverse is no cake walk either, but the document suggests the intent is there. I hope we can all find ways to support that.

User Centric

While I’m not a fan of all the metrics of success, there is a clear focus on making life easier for citizens and users. Many of the goals have an underlying interest of creating simplicity for users (e.g. a single place to find “x” or “y”). This matters. An effective government is one that meets the needs of its citizens. Figuring out how to make things accessible and desirable to use, particularly with information technology, has not been a strength of governments in the past. This emphasis is encouraging.

There is also intriguing talk of a “Client-First” service strategy… More on that below.

Data Standards

There is lots of focus on data standards. Data standards matter because it is hard to use data — particularly across government, or from different governments and organizations — if they have different standards. Imagine trying if every airline used a different standard to their tickets, so to book a trip involving more than one airline would be impossible as their computers wouldn’t be able to share information with one another, or you. That challenging scenario is what government looks like today. So finding standards can help make government more legible.

So seeing efforts like piloting the Open Contracting Data Standard in Commitment 9, getting provincial and local governments to harmonize data with the feds in Commitment 16 and “Support Openness and Transparency Initiatives around the World” in Commitment Commitment 18 are nice…

… and it also makes it glaring when it is not there. Commitment 17 — Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act — is still silent about implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative standard and so feels inconsistent with the other commitments. More on this below.

The Big Concerns

While there are some good themes, there are also some concerning ones. Three in particular stand out:

Right Goal, Wrong Strategy

At the risk of alienating some colleagues, I’m worried about the number of goals that are about transparency for transparency’s sake. While I’m broadly in favour of such goals… they often risk leading nowhere.

I’d much rather see specific problems the government wants to focus its resources on open data or sharing scientific materials on. When no focus is defined and the goal is to just “make things transparent” what tends to get made transparent is what’s easy, not what’s important.

So several commitments, like numbers 3, 13, 14, 15, essentially say “we are going to put more data sets or more information on our portals.” I’m not opposed to this… but I’m not sure it will build support and alignment because doing that won’t be shaped to help people solve today’s problems.

A worse recommendation in this vein is “establish a national network of open data users within industry to collaborate on the development of standards and practices in support of data commercialization.” There is nothing that will hold these people together. People don’t come together to create open data standards, they come together to solve a problem. So don’t congregate open data users — they have nothing in common — this is like congregating “readers.” They may all read, but their expertise will span a wide variety of interests. Bring people together around a problem and then get focused on the data that will help them solve it.

To get really tangible, on Friday the Prime Minister had a round table with local housing experts in Vancouver. One outcome of that meeting might have been the Prime Minister stating, “this is a big priority, I’m going to task someone with finding all the data the federal government has that is relevant to this area so that all involved have the most up to date and relevant information we can provide to improve all our analyses.”

Now maybe the feds have no interesting data on this topic. Maybe they do. Maybe this is one of the PMOs top 6 priorities, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, the government should pick 3–8 policy areas they care deeply about and focus sharing data and information on those. Not to the exclusion of others, but to provide some focus. Both to public servants internally, so they can focus their efforts, and to the public. That way, experts, the public and anyone can, if they are able, grab the data to help contribute to the public discourse on the topic.

There is one place where the plan comes close to taking this approach, in Commitment 22: Engage Canadians to Improve Key Canada Revenue Agency Services. It talks a lot about public consultations to engage on charitable giving, tax data, and improving access to benefits. This section identifies some relatively specific problem the government wants to solve. If the government said it was going to disclose all data it could around these problems and work with stakeholders to help develop new research and analysis… then they would have nailed it.

Approaches like those suggested above might result in new and innovative policy solutions from both traditional and non-traditional sources. But equally important, such an approach to a “transparency” effort will have more weight from Ministers and the PMO behind it, rather than just the OGP plan. It might also show governments how transparency — while always a source of challenges— is also a tool that can help advance their agenda by promoting conversations and providing feedback. Above all it would create some models, initially well supported politically, that could then be scaled to other areas.


I’m not sure if I read this correctly but the funding, with $11.5M in additional funds over 5 years (or is that the total funding?) is feeling like not a ton to work with given all the commitments. I suspect many of the commitments have their own funding in various departments… but it makes it hard to assess how much support there is for everything in the plan.


This is pretty nerdy… but there are several points in the plan where it talks about “a single online window” or “single, common search tool.” This is a real grey area. There are times when a single access point is truly transformative… it creates a user experience that is intuitive and easy. And then there are times when a single online window is a Yahoo! portal when what you really want is to just go to google and do your search.

The point to this work is the assumption that the main problem to access is that things can’t be found. So far, however, I’d say that’s an assumption, I’d prefer the government test that assumption before making it a plan. Why Because a LOT of resources can be expended creating “single online windows.”

I mean, if all these recommendations are just about creating common schemas that allow multiple data sources to be accessed by a single search tool then… good? (I mean please provide the schema and API as well so others can create their own search engines). But if this involves merging databases and doing lots of backend work… ugh, we are in for a heap of pain. And if we are in for a heap of pain… it better be because we are solving a real need, not an imaginary one.

The Bad

There are a few things that I think have many people nervous.

Access to Information Act Review

While there is lots of good in that section, there is also some troubling language. Such as:

  • A lot of people will be worried about the $5 billing fee for FOIA requests. If you are requesting a number of documents, this could represent a real barrier. I also think it creates the wrong incentives. Governments should be procuring systems and designing processes that make sharing documents frictionless — this implies that costs are okay and that there should be friction in performing this task.
  • The fact that Government institutions can determine a FOIA request is “frivolous” or “vexatious” so can thus be denied. Very worried about the language here.
  • I’m definitely worried about having mandatory legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. I’d rather get it right once every 15–30 years and have it locked in stone than give governments a regular opportunity to tinker with and dilute it.

Commitment 12: Improve Public Information on Canadian Corporations

Having a common place for looking up information about Canadian Corporations is good… However, there is nothing in this about making available the trustees or… more importantly… the beneficial owners. The Economist still has the best article about why this matters.

Commitment 14: Increase Openness of Federal Science Activities (Open Science)

Please don’t call it “open” science. Science, by definition, is open. If others can’t see the results or have enough information to replicate the experiment, then it isn’t science. Thus, there is no such thing as “open” vs. “closed” science. There is just science, and something else. Maybe it’s called alchemy or bullshit. I don’t know. But don’t succumb to the open science wording because we lose a much bigger battle when you do.

It’s a small thing. But it matters.

Commitment 15: Stimulate Innovation through Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX)

I already talked about about how I think bringing together “open data” users is a big mistake. Again, I’d focus on problems, and congregate people around those.

I also suspect that incubating 15 new data-driven companies by June 2018 is not a good idea. I’m not persuaded that there are open data businesses, just businesses that, by chance, use open data.

Commitment 17: Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act

If the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act is that same as it was before then… this whole section is a gong show. Again, no EITI standard in this. Worse, the act doesn’t require extractive industries to publish payments to foreign governments in a common standard (so it will be a nightmare to do analysis across companies or industry wide). Nor does it require that companies submit their information to a central repository, so aggregating the data about the industry will be nigh high impossible (you’ll have to search across hundreds of websites).

So this recommendation: “Establish processes for reporting entities to publish their reports and create means for the public to access the reports” is fairly infuriating as it a terrible non-solution to a problem in the legislation.

Maybe the legislation has been fixed. But I don’t think so.

The Missing

Not in the plan is any reference to the use of open source software or shares that software across jurisdictions. I’ve heard rumours of some very interesting efforts of sharing software between Ontario and the federal government that potentially saves tax payers millions of dollars. In addition, by making the software code open, the government could employ security bug bounties to try to make it more secure. Lots of opportunity here.

The Intriguing

The one thing that really caught my eye, however, was this (I mentioned it earlier):

The government is developing a Service Strategy that will transform service design and delivery across the public service, putting clients at the centre.

Now that is SUPER interesting. A “Service Strategy”? Does this mean something like the Government Digital Service in the UK? Because that would require some real resources. Done right it wouldn’t just be about improving how people get services, but a rethink of how government organizes services and service data. Very exciting. Watch that space.

The OGP, Civil Society and Power: Why #CSOday missed its mark

Yesterday in the University of London student union building, civil society organizations (CSOs) from around the world that are participating in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) gathered to prepare for today and tomorrow’s OGP summit.

There was much that was good about Civil Society Day (#CSOday). Old acquaintances reconnect and some new connections were forged. There were many useful exchanges of best practices and shared challenges and even some fun moments – such as singing led by transparency activists from the sub-continent who regularly put their lives on the line.

However with an evenings reflection I feel increasingly that the day represents a missed opportunity.

Not discussed – at least in the sessions I attended – was the more basic question of: Is this working for us? And if no, what should we do about it. Perhaps still more important was using the time to ask: How can the civil society participants use one another and the OGP to build power to advance their goals?

What – in retrospect – might have been the session most likely to trigger this conversation, the “What can civil society do to push ambition on Open Government?” did spark a brief discussion about if and how civil society organizations may exit the OGP if the process is not serving their needs. It also generated a brief acknowledgement that the OGP processes could be revisited. But ultimately the conversation felt unambitious. Something that, as an audience member, was as much my fault as anyones.

Indeed the entire day, the sessions felt like mere prologues/duplications of the sessions that are occurring during the OGP. Coalitions were not formed. Misunderstandings not broken down. Progress was made, but at was best iterative, not transformative.

Again, the CSO’s in my mind, need to start thinking about how the OGP can help them build power. I think, until now, we’ve believed that the secretariat and the processes would do that for us. It does – but likely not enough to generate the type of action many are looking for. Worse, the OGP is probably unlikely to have a single failure moment – rather the CSOs might slowly start drifting away quietly, if they feel it does not serve them. This makes figuring out more about how the OGP can serve CSO’s – particularly more local ones – all the more important.

I am perhaps, alone in thinking this. But if not, I offer one proposal about how we could build power.

A Brief Diagnosis

A core part of the problem is that while the heads of states can regularly generate media by simply meeting within the context of the OGP, it is much harder for civil society. I – and some I talk to – feel like this void should be filled by the steering committee – and particularly its CSO members. However, they appear constrained in what they can say and do. This manifests itself in three ways:

  • First, it appears the steering committee is unable to speak out against – and attract attention to – countries that are clearly moving backwards on their commitments.
  • Second, there appears to be limited capacity to challenge new entrants who cause many CSOs to feel uncomfortable. This includes Russia (who ultimately opted not to join) and Argentina, which many Latin American CSOs feel has been particularly egregious in systemically limiting freedom of expression. Membership has privileges, it endows on countries some social license and impacts the OGP brand in other countries – barriers to entry matter.
  • Third, the steering committee seems to have done little to attract international and/or national attention to Independent Reporting Mechanism reports – a third party report that assessed governments’ progress against their goals. Fears that the IRPs would be watered down seem to have been misplaced. According to many the IRPs are fair, balanced and in many cases quite critical. This is fantastic. The feat now is that poor IRP reports are not creating neither attention nor pressure for change.

It may not be the role of the steering committee to draw attention to these issues. I feel it is. Either way, it needs to be someone’s role. I want to be clear, I don’t believe the CSOs steering committee members have been negligent – I know they are diligent and effective CSO partners. Rather I believe there are some norms, and even hard structural barriers that prevent them from speaking out or pushing the steering committee as a whole to speak out on these issues.

Thus I suggest that the CSOs do the following.

A Suggestion

First – create a committee of highly respected CSO members that most members believe can, in specific circumstances, speak on behalf of the global CSO community. Normally I’d advocate that the members of each regional committee caucus until they decide on who that person can be. However, perhaps in the interim, we should just pick some that are appear to be widely respected. I’ve not consulted with any of these people – so mentioning them is just as likely to embarrass them – but I might nominate: Alison Tilley (South Africa), John Wonderlich (United States),  Emmanuel C. Lallana (Philippines), Felipe Heusser (Chile), Helen Darbishire (Europe). There is a imperfect list and is limited by people I’ve met and heard others speak about in positive terms. The key thing is to not get bogged down – at this time – with the selection process (at this time).

Second – a common mailing list where if, at any point, a national group of CSOs feel like their country is backsliding on its commitments or failing to live up to the OGP in a significant way, they could raise their concern with this committee.

Third – if, after some deliberation both within the committee and across the CSO community in general it was felt that there was a serious problem, this committee could issues statements on behalf of the CSO community. I could be wrong, but it would be nice to think that a collective outcry from the world’s leading CSO’s in transparency, governance and government reform might focus some (hopefully embarrassing) international media on the situation and put this issue on the agenda in various diplomatic circles. This committee might also bang the drum more aggressively in the international media about poor IRM reports.

I’ll be absolutely transparent about the goals here. Directly, the idea is to make the OGP process empower more CSO’s – hopefully the local one in particular. Indirectly however, the underlying hope to put pressure on the OGP governance and culture to remove any barriers that currently prevent CSO steering committee members from speak out as a group about various issues. If we succeeded in this, we could abandon this idea and concentrate on new ways to create power. And, if this had not come to pass, we could then formalize the committee and make it more permanent.

I don’t claim this model is perfect, and would invite feedback and or suggestions for alternatives. But I would love for the CSOs to starting thinking about how they can leverage the community the OGP has created to foster power to enable them to challenge governments more effectively.

Moreover, I think many governments would like it. Indeed, after floating this idea past one government official, they commented “We would like the CSOs to push as more. We want to do more and need to have a political environment in which that pressure exists. It helps us.” Perhaps not true of every government – but we have allies.

Access to Information, Technology and Open Data – Keynote for the Commissioners

On October 11th I was invited by Elizabeth Denham, the Access to Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia to give a keynote at the Privacy and Access 20/20 Conference in Vancouver to an audience that included the various provincial and federal Information Commissioners.

Below is my keynote, I’ve tried to sync the slides up as well as possible. For those who want to skip to juicier parts:

  • 7:08 – thoughts about the technology dependence of RTI legislation
  • 12:16 –  the problematic approach to RTI implementation that results from these unsaid assumptions
  • 28:25 – the need and opportunity to bring open data and RTI advocates together

Some acronyms used:

OGP Rules of the Game – Tactical Mistake or Strategic Necessity?

The other week Martin Tisne, the UK Policy Director at the Omidyar Network, as well as one of the key architects of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), posted a blog post expressing concern that Civil Society participants have misunderstood the OGP. Specifically Tisne is concerned that by focusing on entrance into the OGP rather than on the process which requires them to fulfill commitments towards greater transparency, NGOs are making a tactical mistake.

There is a tremendous amount of good insight in Tisne’s piece and it deserves to be widely read (and has been). There are however, important reasons civil society members spend as much time fretting about entrance into the OGP rather than purely on the process. And contrary to Tisne, I don’t think this is a tactical mistake – it is, in fact, both a tactically and strategically sound choice. Most importantly of all it is a reflection of how power is structured and distributed within the OGP.

For most activists fostering change is about a developing a set of carrots and sticks that can be used to cajole a reluctant actor into making the change you seek. One big carrot is participation in the OGP. This is good. It urges governments to make commitments and sign on to a process. However, it also has a serious impact on civil society’s power in the process. This is because it puts one major carrot – participation – at the beginning of the process while placing the stick – an assessment of how well a government is adhering to its commitments – at the end.

We shouldn’t underestimate the benefit participation confers on many governments. The OGP brand can become a sort of shield that protects a government against all sorts of accusations of opacity. “Of course we are transparent, we participate in the OGP” is an easy line for minister to counter to an uncomfortable question. And that is not the only way participation can diminish civil society’s power. Because a government’s necessarily requires civil society cooperation (they sign off on the commitments), it binds the two together. This means that, in some basic way, civil society has endorsed a – yet to be implemented – government plan. That can provide enormous political cover. In addition, OGP members may cause some citizens (e.g. potential transparency supporters and activists) to adopt a “wait and see” approach to judging their government, or to assume that a reliable process is in place and so they can focus on other issues. Rather than maintain or intensify pressure on a government, the OGP, in the short term, may diminish the power of civil society.

The aforementioned stick in the OGP process is the independent reporting mechanism. And it arrives at the end of the process, a couple of years after the country has joined the OGP. The hope is it provides an objective assessment that civil society members can use to shame and drive for change where the assessment is critical. The challenge, and the reason I suspect many civil society members remain nervous, is that this mechanism remains mostly untested. The OGP carrot and stick model becomes even more challenging if either a) the timeline for fulfilling commitments falls onto the term of the next government or b) a transparency issue arises that runs counter to the OGPs values but falls outside the government’s action plan.  This is what happened in South Africa and so calling for ejection from the OGP became rational (and even necessary) since both the short term carrot (OGP participation) and long term stick – are review of the implementation plan – provided civil society with no leverage or power against a law that distinctly ran counter to the OGPs principles.

Consequently, the threat of striping a government of its OGP membership is not only a rational choice for many civil society members, in some cases it may be one of the few sticks available to them during a period in the process when other forms of influence have been made less effective. Threats of ejection is this not only a rational choice, but possible the only choice.

Indeed, OGP architects should take heart of the fact that civil society members are relatively hawkish about who gets to enter the OGP. As previously mentioned, OGP membership itself denotes a degree credibility – particularly to an unaware public. Civil society members bound to the OGP are potentially more invested in protecting the credibility and brand of the OGP than either the member governments of the OGP secretariat is. This is because, try as the OGP might to not compare countries to one another, civil society members know the company you keep matters.

This is not to say that the OGP should only be a high achievers club. I think the public understands there are differences in capacity, and the entrance of a country like Libya that is making a difficult transition, is broadly seen as positive. However, the participation of an authoritarian government, or even a democracy infamous for jailing journalists, significant corruption and little transparency – damages the the OGP brand for all participants, and particularly for civil society members participating in the process. I can only imagine the Executive Director of a civil society group grimacing as someone asks incredulously: “you are part of a transparency group that includes (insert country with poor record of your choice)?” Civil society actors that are the most invested in protecting the OGP’s brand, if only to ensure that the IRM has credibility when it is finally launched in their country. As such, protesting the potential entry of a country is not a tactical mistake, but a highly strategic decision.

I say this not because Martin is wrong, especially about his four points – civil society participation, OGP stretch goals, relevance check and the IRM – these are indeed critical to the bedrock of the OGP. And I remain exceedingly hopeful about the OGP, although a great deal hinges on the IRM and the degree with which it empowers local civil society actors. Rather I think it bears reminding all involved that we need to continuously have explicit and productive conversations about power, and how it is structured and where it flows, when it comes to the OGP process, as this reveals a lot about why actors act the way they do, and could provide insights in how we can make the OGP more effective.

Launching the Canadian OGP Civil Society Discussion Group

Dear colleagues,

We are Canadians who have been actively involved with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process, including by participating in the OGP meeting in Brasilia in April 2012. The OGP is a joint government – civil society initiative to promote greater openness, participation and accountability in countries which have already attained a minimum standard of openness. Canada joined the OGP in September 2011.

Participation by interested stakeholders is a key feature of the design of the OGP. There is equal representation of civil society and government representatives on the lead body of the OGP, the Steering Committee. More importantly, a key mechanism of the OGP is for countries to develop and then implement Action Plans setting out their commitments for moving forward in terms of openness, participation and accountability. Governments are formally required to consult extensively with civil society and other interested stakeholders in developing and delivering on their Action Plans. Civil society will also play a key role in reporting on progress in implementing Action Plans, including through its participation in a parallel Independent Reporting Mechanism, which will present its findings on progress alongside those of the government.

In several countries, civil society groups and other stakeholders have formed networks or coalitions to work together to help ensure effective external input into the development, implementation and evaluation of Action Plans. We are proposing to set up such a network in Canada and we are proposing, as a first step, to establish a discussion list involving external (i.e. non-government) groups and individuals who have a demonstrated commitment to open government and who are interested in getting engaged in this important work. We envisage this as a loose and open network, through which anyone could propose discussions, ideas or action points relating to OGP. The network would have no voice or right of action of its own, and so participation in the network or the discussion list would not involve any obligations or engagements.

As an example of how the network might work, we note that, to date, Canada has not complied with its OGP obligations in the area of consultations. There was very limited civil society or other stakeholder participation in the development of the Action Plan, which Canada presented in Brasilia in April, and there has been little consultation since then on implementation of the Plan. The network might through the e-list discuss this issue and come up with actions which interested groups and/or individuals could participate in (always on a voluntary basis).

Please let us know if you are interested in joining such an initiative. To join, visit: http://lists.opengovcanada.ca/mailman/listinfo/ogp_lists.opengovcanada.ca and follow the subscription instructions. If you have any questions, please send these to admin@ogp.opengovcanaca.ca.

Thanks for your attention and interest in these key issues.

David Eaves,
Open Government Advocate and OpenNorth Board Member
Vancouver, BC

Michael Gurstein Ph.D.
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, BC

Toby Mendel
Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy
Halifax, NS

Some thoughts on the Open Government Partnership

It is hard to sum up what is happening at the Open Government Partnership this year. Whether it is the geography the conference covers (over 40 countries), the range of issues affected by openness, or the sheer number of people, there is a great deal to wrap your arms around.

Here are some reflections after a day and a half.

First is the sheer size of the conference. I’m told there are roughly 1200 registered participants. And you feel it. The buzz is louder, the crowds are bigger, and the number of people you don’t know is larger.

For one, governments get to see what others are up to, but more important are the connections made among civil society members. In many ways the OGP’s biggest benefit may be the way it builds capacity by enabling civil society organizations and individuals to learn from one another and trade stories.

The potential for this is particularly true (and remains unrealized) between civil society communities that do not tend to interact. There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.

Moreover, concerns among access to information types that the OGP will be dominated by technology issues feel overplayed, every “official” civil society representative I witnessed respond to a government presentation on its OGP goals was someone out of the Access to Information community, not the Gov.20/tech community. In a real sense, it is the access to information community that has greater influence over the discourse at the OGP and so concerns about the reverse feel, to some measure, overblown.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there are some very early debates about the future of the OGP, particularly in relation to its members. The articles of governance published yesterday by the OGP do lay out a process for removing members, but the criteria is vague regarding many issues the virtually all civil society members feel strongly about. The OGP has already demonstrated that the term open can capture the imaginations of a broad group of people and is a desirable trait to which governments want to be associated. In this regard it has some realized and a great deal more potential of being an important carrot that can provoke governments to make commitments around openness that they might not have otherwise make or prioritize. But the stick – which is essential to many civil society participants – remains still somewhat vague. And without it, it is hard to imagine the project working. If, once you are in the OGP, it does not much matter what you do, then the project loses a great deal of its meaning, at least, based on conversations I had, to many of its civil society participants.

And the tests on this issue are real and immediate.

South Africa – a OGP steerting committee member(!) – is in the process of enacting the “Protection of Information Bill” which effectively makes leaks illegal. If this can happen without any sanctions to its OGP status, then I suspect, the process loses a great deal of credibility. The participation of Russia raises similar questions. While it speaks volumes about the attractiveness of the OGP and Russia’s participation may help foster some domestic positive changes, to admit a country that is regularly accused of rigging elections and where journalists routinely go missing is likely to frustrate many who wish to use the OGP as a stick by which to hold their own governments to account. How worried will Mexico, Turkey or Canada be about reneging on its commitments if South Africa is allowed to pass draconian laws around access to information, or journalists are allowed to go missing in Russia?

To date, there are not heated arguments over the issue (at least publicly) and my sense is the topic is only just beginning to peculate for most civil society members, but given the immediate challenges South Africa and Russia pose to the OGP expect this issue to become much more heated, barring some clear resolution that satisfies the civil society participants.

Much less important, but still worth noting, is the simple fact that the logistics must be better next time. While the Brazilians were generous and warm hosts and, unlike in New York, civil society participants were thankfully not segregated from the government representatives, the failure to have internet access on the first day was unacceptable. It meant that anyone not on site could not follow along to the presentations and those at the conference could not engage those at home, or at the conference, online. For a conference about openness and engagement, it was an unfortunate reminder of even some of the more basic challenges still confronting us.

My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

Attached below is my submission to the Open Government Consultation conducted by Treasury Board over the last couple of weeks. There appear to be a remarkable number of submission that were made by citizens, which you can explore on the Treasury Board website. In addition, Tracey Lauriault has tracked some of the submissions on her website.

I actually wish the submissions on the Government website were both searchable and could be downloaded in there entirety. That way we could re-organize them, visualize them, search and parse them as well as play with the submissions so as to make the enormous number of answers easier to navigate and read. I can imagine a lot of creative ways people could re-format all that text and make it much more accessible and fun.

Finally, for reference, in addition to my submission I wrote this blog post a couple months ago suggesting goals the government set for itself as part of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Happily, since writing that post, the government has moved on a number of those recommendations.

So, below is my response to the government’s questions (in bold):

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

First, I want to recognize that a tremendous amount of work has been done to get the present website and number of data sets up online.


My advice on making data easier to engage Socrata to create the front end. Socrata has an enormous amount of experience in how to share government data effectively. Consider http://data.oregon.gov here is a site that is clean, easy to navigate and offers a number of ways to access and engage the governments data.

More specifically, what works includes:

1. Effective search: a simple search mechanism returns all results
2. Good filters: Because the data is categorized by type (Internal vs. external, charts, maps, calendars, etc…) it is much easier to filter. One thing not seen on Socrata that would be helpful would be the ability to sort by ministry.
3. Preview: Once I choose a data set I’m given a preview of what it looks like, this enables me to assess whether or not it is useful
4. Social: Here there is a ton on offer
– I’m able to sort data sets by popularity – being able to see what others find interesting is, in of itself interesting.
– Being able to easily share data sets via email, or twitter and facebook means I’m more likely to find something interesting because friends will tell me about it
– Data sets can also be commented upon so I can see what others think of the data, if they think it is useful or not, and what for or not.
– Finally, it would be nice if citizens could add meta data, to make it easier for others to do keyword searches. If the government was worried about the wrong meta data being added, one could always offer a search with crowd sourced meta data included or excluded
5. Tools: Finally, there are a large number of tools that make it easier to quickly play with and make use of the data, regardless of one’s skills as a developer. This makes the data much more accessible to the general public.


Finding data is part of the problem, being able to USE the data is a much bigger issue.

Here the single most useful thing would be to offer API’s into government data. My own personal hope is that one day there will be a large number of systems both within and outside of government that will integrate government data right into their applications. For example, as I blogged about here – https://eaves.ca/2011/02/18/sharing-critical-information-with-public-lessons-for-governments/ – product recall data would be fantastic to have as an API so that major retailers could simply query the API every time they scan inventory in a warehouse or at the point of sale, any product that appears on the list could then be automatically removed. Internally, Borders and Customs could also query the API when scanning exports to ensure that nothing exported is recalled.

Second, if companies and non-profits are going to invest in using open data, they need assurances that both they are legally allowed to use the data and that the data isn’t going to suddenly disappear on them. This means, a robust license that is clear about reuse. The government would be wise to adopt the OGL or even improve on it. Better still helping establish a standardized open data license for Canada and ideally internationally could help reduce some legal uncertainty for more conservative actors.

More importantly, and missing from Socrata’s sites, would be a way of identifying data sets on the security of their longevity. For example, data sets that are required by legislation – such as the NPRI – are the least likely to disappear, whereas data sets the the long form census which have no legal protection could be seen as at higher risk.


How would you use or manipulate this data?

I’m already involved in a number of projects that use and share government data. Among those are Emitter.ca – which maps and shares NPRI pollution data and Recollect.net, which shares garbage calendar information.

While I’ve seen dramatically different uses of data, for me personally, I’m interested mostly in using data for thinking and writing about public policy issues. Indeed, much has been made of the use of data in “apps” but I think it is worth noting that the single biggest use of data will be in analysis – government officials, citizens, academics and others using the data to better understand the world around them and lobby for change.

This all said, there are some data sets that are of particular usefulness to people, these include:

1. Data sets on sensitive issues, this includes health, inspection and performance data (Say surgery outcomes for specific hospitals, or restaurant inspection data, crime and procurement data are often in great demand).
2. Dynamic real-time Data: Data that is frequently updated (such a border, passport renewal or emergency room wait times). This data is shared in the right way can often help people adjust schedules and plans or reallocate resources more effectively. Obviously this requires an API.
3.Geodata: Because GIS standards are very mature it is easy to “mashup” geo data to create new maps or offer new services. These common standards means that geo data from different sources will work together or can be easily compared. This is in sharp contrast to say budget data, where there are few common standards around naming and organizing the data, making it harder to share and compare.

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

It is absolutely essential that all government records be machine readable.

Some of the most deplorable moment in open government occur when the government shares documents with the press, citizens or parliamentary officers in paper form. The first and most important thing to make government information easier to find online is to ensure that it is machine readable and searchable by words. If it does not meet this criteria I increasingly question whether or not it can be declared open.

As part of the Open Government Partnership commitments it would be great for the government to commit to guarantee that every request for information made of it would include a digital version of the document that can be searched.

Second, the government should commit that every document it publishes be available online. For example, I remember in 2009 being told that if I wanted a copy of the Health Canada report “Human Health in a Changing Climate:A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity” I had to request of CD, which was then mailed to me which had a PDF copy of the report on it. Why was the report not simply available for download? Because the Minister had ordered it not to appear on the website. Instead, I as a taxpayer and to see more of my tax dollars wasted for someone to receive my mail, process it, then mail me a custom printed cd. Enabling ministers to create barriers to access government information, simply because they do not like the contents, is an affront to the use of tax payer dollars and our right to access information.

Finally, Allow Government Scientists to speak directly to the media about their research.

It has become a reoccurring embarrassment. Scientists who work for Canada publish an internationally recognized ground break paper that provides some insight about the environment or geography of Canada and journalists must talk to government scientists from other countries in order to get the details. Why? Because the Canadian government blocks access. Canadians have a right to hear the perspectives of scientists their tax dollars paid for – and enjoy the opportunity to get as well informed as the government on these issues.

Thus, lift the ban that blocks government scientists from speaking with the media.


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

1. Honour Consultation Processes that have started

The process of public consultation is insulted when the government itself intervenes to bring the process into disrepute. The first thing the government could do to improve how it consults is not sabotage processes that already ongoing. The recent letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver regarding the public consultation on the Northern Gateway Pipelines has damaged Canadians confidence in the governments willingness to engage in and make effective use of public consultations.

2. Focus on collecting and sharing relevant data

It would be excellent if the government shared relevant data from its data portal on the public consultation webpage. For example, in the United States, the government shares a data set with the number and location of spills generated by Enbridge pipelines, similar data for Canada would be ideal to share on a consultation. Also useful would be economic figures, job figures for the impacted regions, perhaps also data from nearby parks (visitations, acres of land, kml/shape boundary files). Indeed, data about the pipeline route itself that could be downloaded and viewed in Google earth would be interesting. In short, there are all sorts of ways in which open data could help power public consultations.

3. Consultations should be ongoing

It would be great to see a 311 like application for the federal government. Something that when loaded up, would use GPS to identify the services, infrastructure or other resources near the user that is operated by the federal government and allow the user to give feedback right then and there. Such “ongoing” public feedback could then be used as data when a formal public consultation process is kicked off.


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

1. The UK governments expense disclosure and release of the COINS database more generally is probably the most radical act of government transparency to date. Given the government’s interest in budget cuts this is one area that might be of great interest to pursue.

2. For critical data sets, those that are either required by legislation or essential to the operation of a ministry or the government generally, it would be best to model the city of Chicago or Washington DC and foster the creation of a data warehouse where this data could be easily shared both internally and externally (as privacy and security permits). These cities are leading governments in this space because they have tackled both the technical challenges (getting the data on a platform where it can be shared easily) and around governance (tackling the problem of managing data sets from various departments on a shared piece of infrastructure).


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

Some additional ideas:

Redefine Public as Digital: Pass an Online Information Act

a) Any document it produces should be available digitally, in a machine readable format. The sham that the government can produce 3000-10,000 printed pages about Afghan detainees or the F-35 and claim it is publicly disclosing information must end.

b) Any data collected for legislative reasons must be made available – in machine readable formats – via a government open data portal.

c) Any information that is ATIPable must be made available in a digital format. And that any excess costs of generating that information can be born by the requester, up until a certain date (say 2015) at which point the excess costs will be born by the ministry responsible. There is no reason why, in a digital world, there should be any cost to extracting information – indeed, I fear a world where the government can’t cheaply locate and copy its own information for an ATIP request as it would suggest it can’t get that information for its own operations.

Use Open Data to drive efficiency in Government Services: Require the provinces to share health data – particularly hospital performance – as part of its next funding agreement within the Canada Health Act.

Comparing hospitals to one another is always a difficult task, and open data is not a panacea. However, more data about hospitals is rarely harmful and there are a number of issues on which it would be downright beneficial. The most obvious of these would be deaths caused by infection. The number of deaths that occur due to infections in Canadian hospitals is a growing problem (sigh, if only open data could help ban the antibacterial wipes that are helping propagate them). Having open data that allows for league tables to show the scope and location of the problem will likely cause many hospitals to rethink processes and, I suspect, save lives.

Open data can supply some of the competitive pressure that is often lacking in a public healthcare system. It could also better educate Canadians about their options within that system, as well as make them more aware of its benefits.

Reduce Fraud: Creating a Death List

In an era where online identity is a problem it is surprising to me that I’m unable to locate a database of expired social insurance numbers. Being able to query a list of social security numbers that belong to dead people might be a simple way to prevent fraud. Interestingly, the United States has just such a list available for free online. (Side fact: Known as the Social Security Death Index this database is also beloved by genealogist who use it to trace ancestry).

Open Budget and Actual Spending Data

For almost a year the UK government has published all spending data, month by month, for each government ministry (down to the £500 in some, £25,000 in others). More over, as an increasing number of local governments are required to share their spending data it has lead to savings, as government begin to learn what other ministries and governments are paying for similar services.

Create a steering group of leading Provincial and Municipal CIOs to create common schema for core data about the country.

While open data is good, open data organized the same way for different departments and provinces is even better. When data is organized the same way it makes it easier to citizens to compare one jurisdiction against another, and for software solutions and online services to emerge that use that data to enhance the lives of Canadians. The Federal Government should use its convening authority to bring together some of the countries leading government CIOs to establish common data schemas for things like crime, healthcare, procurement, and budget data. The list of what could be worked on is virtually endless, but those four areas all represent data sets that are frequently requested, so might make for a good starting point.