Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category


Monday, December 5th, 2011

The article by Elizabeth Thompson ran in iPolitics a few weeks ago under the headline “Twitter, Facebook and social media ‘critical’ to government, says Clement.” It was one of those stories that sail just under the mainstream media radar–an anodyne little item that didn’t make the grade in the newsrooms of the national outlets. 

Speaking after an appearance before the Senate Official Languages Committee, Treasury Board President Tony Clement told iPolitcs that he wants to launch a pilot project to use social media to consult and engage Canadians more on government policies. He added that he intends to push forward with Treasury Board’s open data initiative where government information is shared openly online.



This is one story with legs. Or at least, it’s a story that should have legs. While it may not be readily apparent, few initiatives now on the government’s drawing board have the potential to transform our democracy as much as this one.

And this is a story that anyone who believes in the concepts and merits of open government or government 2.0 needs to take stock of and react to-now. 

Senate reform, more MPs for rapidly growing provinces, amount to tinkering at the margins of our democratic system when compared to the transformative potential of genuine online engagement and its institutional implications.

Clement, who is one of the most active MPs on Twitter, is quoted in the article as saying that the opportunity “to use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens…is a big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government. It is very important for the future.”

He’s right. The problem is that there have been no conversations on what that conversation could or should look like.

The absence of a public debate on the merits and implications of using technology to open government up and engage more with citizens means that what has the potential to transform our institutions also runs the risk of being used to shore up the status quo.

The problem is that our system is built around incrementalism—small cautious steps that don’t rock the boat are what garner promotions in Ottawa, not proposals for sweeping institutional reform.

And citizen consultation is nothing new in government. There are well-staffed units in most federal departments that do nothing but consult and engage with citizens and interest groups. 

But using new online tools to make these consultations easier does not mean we’ve embraced Government 2.0. Giving outdated concepts and approaches a fresh coat of paint will only hide the rust and cover up the cracks.   

One of the challenges is that our current system of ministerial and bureaucratic accountability is not designed to easily integrate solutions that run counter to formal advice.  Alternatives or contrary opinions tend to be relegated to the public environment scans of memos to cabinet, not recommended action.

Designing new government online strategies to operate on the old institutional and accountability platforms would be like putting a Ferrari body on a ’72 Pinto drive train—it’ll look nice in the garage, but don’t take it for a spin.

If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks. It would also amount to a dramatic re-think of our democracy.

But without a compelling main-street narrative to create political space and demand for real change and without any obvious external champions for this cause the prospects of a transformative open government agenda being implemented any time soon are dim.  

Open government is not a bureaucratic issue–open government is all about politics.  And political leadership and decisions will be what make it happen…or not.  

It’s not enough for techies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves about the virtues of new digital technologies in opening up government. It’s time for Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and kick-start the debate, explain why open government matters and what the cost of half-hearted reforms would be.

A few weeks ago, Treasury Board President Tony Clement hinted at his vision: a connected more collaborative government, a bureaucracy empowered to engage directly with Canadians, the sharing of data to foster innovation. He also said Treasury Board officials were now busy developing “guidelines” that will frame this vision.

The first Treasury Board installment on that vision was released last month: a rule-bound straight jacket of a social media policy to govern public service online activities. Not an auspicious start.

Anyone that wants to see government open up better grab the perch offered by the minister now, before government’s blueprint is fully set and reputations become wed to it.


Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

You would think that if ever there was a time to talk about open government in Canada, it would be now.  After all, this election was triggered by a contempt of parliament motion resulting from the Harper government’s failure to disclose information to the House of Commons–a dubious first in Canadian (and perhaps Commonwealth) history. 

Yet so far, after a week of campaigning, the only party leader to even mention open government has been Liberal Michael Ignatieff. This is disappointing, since the first week in an election campaign is when parties try to frame their narrative, but not really surprising–and open government activists have only themselves to blame.

If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks.  And yet,  a compelling, street level narrative to help create political space for such dramatic change is still missing in action.

Tomorrow, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff marks a more positive first in Canadian history as he unveils his party’s platform live on the internet  and takes online questions from Canadians. Details leaked through various news outlets suggest that the platform will feature a number of  open government commitments. 

The Liberals released an  open government position paper  last October, so it’s a safe bet that their platform will not have have many surprises; although one of the leaked tidbits, a “people’s question period”, suggests the party may have held back a few of their more intriguing proposals to give tomorrow’s announcement an air of freshness.

It will be interesting to see if Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and help create political space for a debate of open government during the last four weeks of this campaign.

It is no longer enough for tecchies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves  about the virtues of open government.  Let’s not kid anybody, open government is all about politics.

Open government is not a bureaucratic or technical issue. From the decision to move forward and make data available, to the choice of data, to the terms of use, to more citizen engagement, all these are highly political decisions and, in Canada, would involve the consent of Treasury Board and cabinet.

Anyone wanting to see government opening up, needs to explain why it matters in a way that is easily understood. They have to move the discussion out of the boardroom and into the kitchen, and they have to do it now.

A little over a week ago the government of Canada fell because it was too secretive. The question is will the open government movement in Canada  seize the moment, or will this historic opportunity to engage Canadians on a re-think of the foundations of Canadian parliamentary democracy be wasted.


Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

BC premier-designate Christy Clark campaigned for the leadership of the BC Liberal party as an outsider committed to change. And while most observers curious about what that change could look like will be waiting to see the make-up of her new cabinet, how (and how quickly) she plans to implement her promise of an open and socially networked government might be a better measuring stick for real change.

Perhaps it’s as a result of the last few years spent in conversations with British Columbians as host of a popular call-in show on Vancouver radio station CKNW, or perhaps she was making a virtue out of necessity; but throughout her campaign, Clark made a point  of stressing a strong desire to engage citizens in finding solutions to the challenges the province faces.

Her Open Government Online project outlines a number of measures that, if implemented, would represent an open government revolution of sorts.  It’s not just that her proposals go further than those of other mainstream parties–including the federal Liberals–it’s that she has made this a central political theme.   

Among the key elements of her initiative is the creation of a dedicated site where issues identified by various government departments would be the subject of open and collaborative discussion and review with the aim of improving policy and program delivery.

Such a proposal may seem anodyne, but if implemented, it would result in a fundamental shift in how information is shared, processed and approved within the government. It would also challenge our traditional notions of ministerial accountability.

Other elements of Clark’s open gov initiative include:

  • Greater online engagement by the premier, cabinet and legislators;
  • Online voting
  • Enhanced online transparency
  • Open data

But this ambitious agenda faces several hurdles, not the least of which is getting the attention it deserves and needs within the machinery of government.

Between now and mid-March when she will be sworn in as BC’s 35th premier, Christy Clark will be receiving daily briefings on government operations, going about the necessary mending of fences and bruised egos that are part of every leadership race, and choosing a new cabinet from a caucus that (save for one member) did not support her.  

This crowded agenda will mean a long wait in the queue for most issues already in the government pipeline; meaning that new and complex policy proposals such as her open government initiative may not get the attention they need to make it to the premier’s “first 100 days list”.   

If implemented, Clark’s vision of a connected, open government which recognizes that data is a public good would create a test bed for new and exciting ways to imagine our democracy. It would certainly help develop an open-government narrative that resonates with ordinary Canadians and not just with techies, bureaucrats or academics. Ultimately, it would spur other governments to follow suit.

What better strategy for a premier looking for ways to put her stamp on the BC government than leading this democratic revolution?  

However, if this made-in-BC revolution falls by the wayside, victim of bureaucratic incrementalism, it will represent not just a lost opportunity to re-engage citizens in  government and democracy–but an opportunity that may not present itself again for another decade.