As some readers many know it was recently announced that I’ve been asked by Ontario Premier Wynn and Government Services Minister John Milloy to be part of the Government of Ontario’s task force on Open Government.
The task force will look at best practices around the world as well as engage a number of stakeholders and conduct a series of public consultations across Ontario to make a number of recommendations around opening up the Ontario government.
I have an opinion piece in the Toronto Star today titled The Promise and Challenges of Open Government where I try (in a few words) to outline some of the challenges the task force faces as well as some of the opportunities I hope it can capitalize on.
The promise and challenges of open government
Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the launch of Ontario’s Open Government initiative, including an engagement task force (upon which I sit).
The premier’s announcement comes on the heels of a number of “open government” initiatives launched in recent years. President Barack Obama’s first act in 2009 was to sign the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. Since then numerous city, state and provincial governments across North America are finding new ways to share information. Internationally, 60 countries belong to the Open Government Partnership, a coalition of states and non-profits that seeks to improve accountability, transparency, technology and innovation and citizen participation.
Some of this is, to be blunt, mere fad. But there is a real sense among many politicians and the public that governments need to find new ways to be more responsive to a growing and more diverse set of citizen needs, while improving accountability.
Technology has a certainly been – in part – a driver, if only because it shifts expectations. Today a Google search takes about 30 milliseconds, with many users searching for mere minutes before locating what they are looking for. In contrast, access to information requests can take weeks, or months to complete. In an age of computers, government processes often seem more informed by the photocopier – clinging to complex systems for sorting, copying and sharing information – than using computer systems that make it easy to share information by design.
There is also growing recognition that government data and information can empower people both inside and outside government. In British Columbia, the province’s open data portal is widely used by students – many of whom previously used U.S. data as it was the only free source. Now the province benefits from an emerging workforce that uses local data while studying everything from the environment to demography to education. Meanwhile the largest user of B.C.’s open data portal are public servants, who are able to research and create policy while drawing on better information, all without endless meetings to ask for permission to use other departments’ data. The savings from fewer meetings alone is likely significant.
The benefits of better leveraging government data can affect us all. Take the relatively mundane but important issue of transit. Every day hundreds of thousands of Ontarians check Google Maps or locally developed applications for transit information. The accumulated minutes not spent waiting for transit has likely saved citizens millions of hours. Few probably realize however that it is because local governments “opened” transit data that it has become so accessible on our computers and phones.
Finally, there are a number of new ways to think about how to “talk” to Ontarians. It is possible that traditional public consultations could be improved. But there is also an opportunity to think more broadly about how the government interacts with citizens. Projects like Wikipedia demonstrate how many small contributions can create powerful resources and public assets. Could such a model apply to government?
All of these opportunities are exciting – and the province is right to explore them. But important policy questions remain. For example: how do we safeguard the data government collects to minimize political interference? The country lost a critical resource when the federal government destroyed the reliability of the long form census by making it voluntary. If crowdsourcing and other new forms of public engagement can be adopted for government, how do we manage privacy concerns and preserve equality of opportunity? And how will such changes affect public representation? Canada’s political system has been marked by increasing centralization of power over the past several decades – will new technologies and approaches further this trend? Or could they be shaped to arrest it? These are not simple questions.
It is also easy to dismiss these efforts. This will neither be the first nor the last time people talk about open government. Indeed, there is a wonderfully cynical episode of Yes, Minister from 1980 titled “Open Government.” More recently, various revelations about surveillance and national governments’ desire to snoop in on our every email and phone call reveals much about what is both opaque and to be feared about our governments. Such cynicism is both healthy and necessary. It is also a reason why we should demand more.
Open government is not something we will ever fully achieve. But I do hope that it can serve as an objective and a constantly critical lens for thinking about what we should demand. I can’t speak for the other panelists of the task force, but that will be how I approach my work.
David Eaves is a public policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert. He is a member of the Ontario government’s new Engagement Task Force.