OPEN GOVERNMENT: IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

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.

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