Tag Archives: opengov

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

Backdrop

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.

Funding

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.

Architecture

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.

Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure

Yesterday, at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) Canada Minister of Natural Resource, Joe Oliver, announced with great fanfare a new initiative to compel mining companies to disclose payments of over $100,000’s to foreign and domestic governments.

On the surface this looks like a win for transparency, particularly for a sector that is of great importance to Canada: mining.

And this issue matters since not only do extractive industries represent an important part of Canada’s economy, but the sector has been dogged with controversy. Indeed the Toronto Star just uncovered today a report commissioned (and buried) by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) that showed Canadian mining companies have the worst record when it comes to environmental standard and human rights.

Forcing mining companies to account for their payments to foreign and domestic governments won’t solve every problem, but it can help curb corruption. Indeed the issue was seen as so important that at the last G8 summit, the leaders agreed that companies should be compelled to disclose these payments.

Happily, there is a legitimate global movement to make government payments by extractive industry companies more transparent. It is called the Extractive Industries Transparency Iniative (EITI). It has set a series of standards for disclosing such payments so that they are easier to track across borders. In fact EITI is seen as so important it is actually the only organization mentioned by name in the last G8 summit communique. This is the same EITI program about which last year the Minister’s press secretary boasted:

Since 2007 Canada has also been a supporting country of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and is now the second largest financial donor to the initiative, providing $12.65 million to the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Multi-donor Trust Fund…

Which brings us to Minister Oliver’s important announcement.

Did the government announce that it was joining 42 other countries, including its G8 partners the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to join the standard it has been a major funder of?

No. It did not.

Apparently EITI is good enough to fund so that others can implement it. When it comes to actually doing what is effective… the government balked. Canada, apparently, is going to adhere to its own “unique” approach.

And it gets worse.

Read the Minister’s statement more closely, particularly this line:

“We want to make it as easy as possible, so we will not create a central database. Instead, we would require that reports be posted to company websites, with the government and public notified.”

So unlike EITI, which offers a centralized repository where records can quickly be downloaded and compared, Canada’s “compliance” will involve each company to maintain their own records “somewhere” and will require anyone interested if actually figuring out what is going on to go and track down each one individually.

We call this secrecy by obscurity. It makes a mockery of the notion of transparency.

We have a global infrastructure designed to make disclosure cheap, easy and effective. Infrastructure our own government has poured $12.7M into it. And we turn around and ignore it all.

Canada claims it wants to be a leader in open data. But if it can’t even get something basic like this right… such claims sounds increasingly silly here at home, among our G8 partners and, well, among the rest of the world.

Addendum: It gets worse still. Few people have noticed yet, but Canada recently (and quietly) stopped reporting the names of corporate directors in the public database of the country’s firms. This is a major step backwards and makes those who benefit from one of the most important benefits society can confer – limited liability – invisible to the public who confers that right. This is a major step backwards. Read this wonderful Economist article on why. More on this to come.

The Importance of Open Data Critiques – thoughts and context

Over at the Programmable City website Rob Kitchin has a thoughtful blog post on open data critiques. It is very much worth reading and wider discussion. Specifically, there are two competing things worth noting. First, it is important for the open data community – and advocates in particular – to acknowledge the responsibility we have in debates about open data. Second, I’d like to examine some of the critiques raised and discuss those I think misfire and those that deserve deeper dives.

Open Data as Dominant Discourse

During my 2011 keynote at Open Government Data camp I talked about how the open data movement was at an inflection point:

For years we have been on the outside, yelling that open data matters. But now we are being invited inside.

Two years later the transition is more than complete. If you have any doubts, consider this picture:OD as DCOnce you have these people talking about things like a G8 Open Data Charter you are no longer on the fringes. Not even remotely.

It also means understanding the challenges around open data has never been more important. We – open data advocates – are now complicit it what many of the above (mostly) men decide to do around open data. Hence the importance of Rob’s post. Previously those with power were dismissive of open data – you had to scream to get their attention. Today, those same actors want to act now and go far. Point them (or the institutions they represent) in the wrong direction and/or frame an issue incorrectly and you could have a serious problem on your hands. Consequently, the responsibility of advocates has never been greater. This is even more the case as open data has spread. Local variations matter. What works in Vancouver may not always be appropriate in Nairobi or London.

I shouldn’t have to say this but I will, because it matters so much: Read the critiques. They matter. They will make you better, smarter, and above all, more responsible.

The Four Critiques – a break down

Reading the critiques and agreeing with them is, of course, not the same thing. Rob cites four critiques of open data: funding and sustainability, politics of the benign and empowering the empowered, utility and usability, and neoliberalisation and marketisation of public services. Some of these I think miss the real concerns and risks around open data, others represent genuine concerns that everyone should have at the forefront of their thinking. Let me briefly touch on each one.

Funding and sustainability

This one strikes me as the least effective criticism. Outside the World Bank I’ve not heard of many examples where government effectively sell their data to make money. I would be very interested in examples to the contrary – it would make for a great list and would enlighten the discussion – although not, I suspect in ways that would make either side of the discussion happy.

The little research that has been done into this subject has suggested that charging for government data almost never yields much money, and often actually serves as a loss creating mechanism. Indeed a 2001 KPMG study of Canadian geospatial data found government almost never made money from data sales if purchases by other levels of government were not included. Again in Canada, Statistics Canada argued for years that it couldn’t “afford” to make its data open (free) as it needed the revenue. However, it turned out that the annual sum generated by these sales was around $2M dollars. This is hardly a major contributor to its bottom line. And of course, this does not count the money that had to go towards salaries and systems for tracking buyers and users, chasing down invoices, etc…

The disappointing line in the critique however was this:

de Vries et al. (2011) reported that the average apps developer made only $3,000 per year from apps sales, with 80 percent of paid Android apps being downloaded fewer than 100 times.  In addition, they noted that even successful apps, such as MyCityWay which had been downloaded 40 million times, were not yet generating profits.

Ugh. First, apps are not what is going to make open data interesting or sexy. I suspect they will make up maybe 5% of the ecosystem. The real value is going to be in analysis and enhancing other services. It may also be in the costs it eliminates (and thus capital and time it frees up, not in the companies it creates), something I outlined in Don’t Measure the Growth, Measure the Destruction.

Moreover, this is the internet. The average doesn’t mean anything. The average webpage probably gets 2 page views per day. That hardly means there aren’t lots of very successful webpages. The distribution is not a bell curve, its a long tail, so it is hard to see what the average tells us other than the cost of experimentation is very, very low. It tells us very little about if there are, or will be successful uses of open data.

Politics of the benign and empowering the empowered

The is the most important critique and it needs to be engaged. There are definitely cases where data can serve to further marginalize at risk communities. In addition, there are data sets that for reasons of security and privacy, should not be made open. I’m not interested in publishing the locations of women’s shelters or worse, the list of families taking refuge in them. Nor do I believe that open data will always serve to challenge the status quo or create greater equality. Even at its most reductionist – if one believes that information is power, then greater ability to access and make us of information makes one more powerful – this means that winners and losers will be created by the creation of new information.

There are however, two things that give me some hope in this space. The first is that, when it comes to open data, the axis of competition among providers usually centers around accessibility. For example, the Socrata platform (an provider of open data portals to government) invests heavily in creating tools that make government data accessible and usable to the broadest possible audience. This is not a claim that all communities are being engaged (far from it) and that a great deal more work cannot be done, but there is a desire to show greater use which drives some data providers to try to find ways to engage new communities.

The second is that if we want to create data literate society – and I think we do, for reasons of good citizenship, social justice and economic competitiveness – you need the data first for people to learn and play with. One of my most popular blog posts is Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data in which I point out that one of the best ways to help people become data literate is to give them more interesting data to play with. My point is that we didn’t build libraries after everyone knew how to read, we built them beforehand with the goal of having them as a place that could facilitate learning and education. Of course libraries also often have strong teaching components to them, and we definitely need more of this. Figuring out who to engage, and how it can be done most effectively is something I’m deeply interested in.

There are also things that often depress me. I struggle to think of technologies that did not empower the empowered – at least initially. From the cell phone to the car to the printing press to open source software, all these inventions have had helped billions of people, but they did not distribute themselves evenly, especially at first. So the question cannot be reduced to – will open data empower the empowered, but to what degree, and where and with whom. I’ve seen plenty of evidence where data has enabled small groups of people to protect their communities or make more transparent the impact (or lack there of) of a government regulation. Open data expands the number of people who can use government information for their own ends – this, I believe is a good thing – but that does not mean we shouldn’t be constantly looking for ways to ensure that it does not reinforce structural inequity. Achieving perfect distribution of the benefits of a new technology, or even public policy, is almost impossible. So we cannot make perfect the enemy of the good. However, that does not hide the fact that there are real risk – and responsibilities as advocates – that need to be considered here. This is an issue that will need to be constantly engaged.

Utility and Usability

Some of the issues around usability I’ve addressed above in the accessibility piece – for some portals (that genuinely want users) the axis of evolution is pointed in the right direction with governments and companies (like Socrata) trying to embed more tools on the website to make the data more usable.

I also agree with the central concern (not a critique) of this section, which is that rather than creating a virtuous circle, poorly thought out and launched open data portals will create a negative “doomloops” in which poor quality data begets little interest which begets less data. However, the concern, in my mind, focuses on to narrow a problem.

One of the big reasons I’ve been an advocate of open data was a desire not just to help citizens, non-profits and companies gain access to information that could help them with their missions, but to change the way government deals with its data so that it can share it internally more effectively. I often cite a public servant I know who had a summer intern spend 3 weeks surfing the national statistical agency website to find data they knew existed but could not find because of terrible design and search. A poor open data site is not just a sign that the public can’t access or effectively use government data, it usually suggests that the governments employees can’t access or effectively use their own data. This is often deeply frustrating to many public servants.

Thus, the most important outcome created by the open data movement may have been making governments realize that data represents an asset class that of which they have had little understanding (outside, sadly, the intelligence sector, which has been all too aware of this) and little policy and governance (outside, say, the GIS space and some personal records categories). Getting governments to think about data as a platform (yes, I’m a fan of government as a platform for external use, but above all for internal use) is, in my mind, one way we can both enable public servants to get better access to information while simultaneously attacking the huge vendors (like SAP and Oracle) whose $100 million dollar implementations often silo off data, rarely produce the results promised and are so obnoxiously expensive it boggles the mind (Clay Johnson has some wonderful examples of the roughly 50% of large IT projects that fail).

They key to all this is that open data can’t be something you slap on top of a big IT stack. I try to explain this in It’s the Icing Not the Cake, another popular blog post about why Washington DC was able to effectively launch an open data program so quickly (which was, apparently, so effective at bringing transparency to procurement data the subsequent mayor rolled it back). The point is, that governments need to start thinking in terms of platforms if – over the long term – open data is going to work. And it needs to start thinking of itself as the primary consumer of the data that is being served on that platform. Steve Yegge’s brilliant and sharp witted rant on how Google doesn’t get platforms is an absolute must read in this regard for any government official – the good news is you are not alone in not finding this easy. Google struggles with it as well.

My main point. Let’s not play at  the edges and merely define this challenge as one of usability. It is much, much bigger problem than that. It is a big, deep, culture-changing BHAG problem that needs tackling. If we get it wrong, then the big government vendors and he inertia of bureaucracy win. We get it right and we potentially could save taxpayers millions while enabling a more nimble, effective and responsive government.

Neoliberalisation and Marketisation of Government

If you not read Jo Bates article “Co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative” I highly recommend it. There are a number of arguments in the article I’m not sure I agree with (and feel are softened by her conclusion – so do read it all first). For example, the notion that open data has been co-opted into an “ideologically framed mould that champions the superiority of markets over social provision” strikes me as lacking nuance. One of the things open data can do is create a public recognition of a publicly held data set and the need to protect these against being privatized. Of course, what I suspect is that both things could be true simultaneously – there can be increased recognition of the importance of a public asset while also recognizing the increased social goods and market potential in leveraging said asset.

However, there is one thing Bates is absolutely correct about. Open data does not come into an empty playing field. It will be used by actors – on both the left and right – to advance their cause. So I too am uncomfortable with those that believe open data is going to somehow depoliticize government or politics – indeed I made a similar argument in a piece in Slate on the politics of data. As I try to point out you can only create a perverse, gerrymandered electoral district that looks like this…

gerrymandered in chicago… if you’ve got pretty good demographic data about target communities you want to engage (or avoid). Data – and even open data – doesn’t magically make things better. There are instances where open data can, I believe, create positive outcomes by shifting incentives in appropriate ways… but similarly, it can help all sorts of actors find ways to satisfy their own goals, which may not be aligned with your – or even society at large’s – goals.

This makes voices like Bates deeply important since they will challenge those of us interested in open data to be constantly evaluating the language we use, the coalitions we form and the priorities that get made, in ways that I think are profoundly important. Indeed, if you get to the end of Bates article there are a list of recommendations that I don’t think anyone I work with around open data would find objectionable, quite the opposite, they would agree are completely critical.

Summary

I’m so grateful to Rob for posting this piece. It is has helped me put into words some thoughts I’ve had, both about the open data criticisms as well as the important role the critiques play. I try hard to be critical advocate of open data – one who engages the risks and challenges posed by open data. I’m not perfect, and balancing these two goals – advocacy with a critical view – is not easy, but I hope this shines some window into the ways I’m trying to balance it and possible helps others do more of it as well.

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.

The promise and challenges of open government – Toronto Star OpEd

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.

Government Procurement Reform – It matters

Earlier this week I posted a slidecast on my talk to Canada’s Access to Information Commissioners about how, as they do their work, they need to look deeper into the government “stack.”

My core argument was how decisions about what information gets made accessible is no longer best managed at the end of a policy development or program delivery process but rather should be embedded in it. This means monkeying around and ensuring there is capacity to export government information and data from the tools (e.g. software) government uses every day. Logically, this means monkeying around in procurement policy (see slide below) since that is where the specs for the tools public servants use get set. Trying to bake “access” into processes after the software has been chosen is, well, often an expensive nightmare.

Gov stack

Privately, one participant from a police force, came up to me afterward and said that I was simply guiding people to another problem – procurement. He is right. I am. Almost everyone I talk to in government feels like procurement is broken. I’ve said as much myself in the past. Clay Johnson is someone who has thought about this more than others, here he is below at the Code for America Summit with a great slide (and talk) about how the current government procurement regime rewards all the wrong behaviours and often, all the wrong players.

Clay Risk profile

So yes, I’m pushing the RTI and open data community to think about procurement on purpose. Procurement is borked. Badly. Not just from a wasting tax dollars money perspective, or even just from a service delivery perspective, but also because it doesn’t serve the goals of transparency well. Quite the opposite. More importantly, it isn’t going to get fixed until more people start pointing out that it is broken and start contributing to solving this major bottle neck of a problem.

I highly, highly recommend reading Clay Johnson’s and Harper Reed’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times about procurement titled Why the Government Never Gets Tech Right.

All of this becomes more important if the White House’s (and other governments’ at all levels) have any hope of executing on their digital strategies (image below).  There is going to be a giant effort to digitize much of what governments do and a huge number of opportunities for finding efficiencies and improving services is going to come from this. However, if all of this depends on multi-million (or worse 10 or 100 million) dollar systems and websites we are, to put it frankly, screwed. The future of government isn’t to be (continue to be?) taken over by some massive SAP implementation that is so rigid and controlled it gives governments almost no opportunity to innovate. And this is the future our procurement policies steer us toward. A future with only a tiny handful of possible vendors, a high risk of project failure and highly rigid and frail systems that are expensive to adapt.

Worse there is no easy path here. I don’t see anyone doing procurement right. So we are going to have to dive into a thorny, tough problem. However, the more governments that try to tackle it in radical ways, the faster we can learn some new and interesting lessons.

Open Data WH

The 311 Open Data Competition is now Live on Kaggle

As I shared the other week, I’ve been working on a data competition with Kaggle and SeeClickFix involving 311 data from four cities: Chicago, New Haven, Oakland and Richmond.

So first things first – the competition is now live. Indeed, there are already 19 teams and 56 submissions that have been made. Fortunately, time is on your side, there are 56 days to go.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, I have real hopes that this competition can help test a hypothesis I have about the possibility of an algorithmic open commons:

There is, however, for me, a potentially bigger goal. To date, as far as I know, predictive algorithms of 311 data have only ever been attempted within a city, not across cities. At a minimum it has not been attempted in a way in which the results are public and become a public asset.

So while the specific problem  this contest addresses is relatively humble, I’d see it as a creating a larger opportunity for academics, researchers, data scientists, and curious participants to figure out if can we develop predictive algorithms that work for multiple cities. Because if we can, then these algorithms could be a shared common asset. Each algorithm would become a tool for not just one housing non-profit, or city program but a tool for all sufficiently similar non-profits or city programs.

Of course I’m also discovering there are other benefits that arise out of these competitions.

This last weekend there was a mini-sub competition/hackathon involving a subset of the data. It was amazing to watch from afar. First, I was floored by how much cooperation there was, even between competitors and especially after the competition closed. Take a look at the forums, they are probably make one of the more compelling cases that open data can help foster more people to want to learn how to manipulate and engage with data. Here are contestants sharing their approaches and ideas with one another – just like you’d want them to. I’d known that Kaggle had a interesting community and that learning played an important role in it, but “riding along” in a mini competition has caused me to look again at the competitions through a purely educational lens. It is amazing how much people both wanted to learn and share.

As in the current competition, the team at the hackathon also ran a competition around visualizing the data. And there were some great visualization of the data that came out of it, as well as another example of where people were trying to learn and share. Here are two of my favourites:

map2

I love this visualization by Christoph Molnar because it reveals the different in request locations in each city. In some they are really dense, whereas in others they are much (more) evenly distributed. Super interesting to me.

Most pressing issues in each city

I also love the simplicity of this image created by miswift. There might have been other things I’d done, like colour coded similar problems to make them easier to compare across cities. But I still love it.

Congratulations to all the winners from this weekends event, and I hope readers will consider participating in the current competition.