“here is a fundamental shift emerging in how we think about democracy. Largely driven by technology, particularly social media, citizens’ expectations of government and their opportunities to engage with us are changing in some very profound ways. Within that context, embracing open government is an inevitable, necessary and potentially very valuable response.”
That’s how Kim Henderson, B.C.’s Deputy Minister of Citizens’ Service and Open Government, explains the drive behind recent impressive steps to open up government in Canada’s westernmost province.
The first provincial jurisdiction to establish social media guidelines for its employees, B.C. is now also the home of Canada’s first provincial open data project. In March, the province’s new Premier, Christy Clark, identified open government as one of her three top priorities. The public service delivered on that in July with the launch of the open data project as one of a trio of major open government initiatives.
Through a new DataBC web portal (www.data.gov.bc.ca), 2,500 sets of government data were released in machine-readable format under a license designed to empower rather than restrict the use of the data, including commercial use. School exam results, obstacles to fish passage, park trails, casino and gaming revenue data are just some of what’s now publicly available, with more to come.
On the same day that DataBC was launched, the province also launched a companion open information site (www.openinfo.gov.bc.ca) where responses to routine freedom of information requests will now be posted within a week of their release to the FOI applicant. The open information site also includes proactive disclosure of minister and deputy minister travel expenses on a monthly basis.
In addition to these two new sites, the province launched a completely redesigned main web presence for government structured around citizen use, needs and expectations rather than primarily around government’s communication priorities. It was developed through extensive design and research to gain a better understanding of how citizens access services now and how that could be improved. Information is now organized by common topics, in plain language, rather than by government’s organization structure and often obscure program names. The approach will be expanded to the entire B.C. government web presence in the year ahead.
Henderson emphasizes that the changes taking place involve much more than just embracing technological tools. Rather, the tools help support a broader philosophical and operational shift toward greater citizen engagement and service improvement outlined last fall in the province’s Gov 2.0 strategy, Citizens @ the Centre, and further advanced under the Premier’s direction.
“We spent a great deal of time thinking about the ‘why’ of open government,” says Henderson. “Transparency is often seen as the outcome, but the outcome should really be better policies and services. Providing greater transparency is part of what you need to do to achieve that goal.
“What we’re really trying to do is give citizens the information they need to contribute to a meaningful dialogue with their government. If we’re increasingly seeking to engage citizens in real conversations, that can only be truly effective and constructive if they have access to the same substantive data and information that we do to help us shape decisions.”
All of this marks a transition to a much more collaborative approach to how government interacts with citizens. Just as important, it creates the potential for citizens, businesses, academics and organizations to generate social and economic benefits by working with each other as well as with government to derive value from the data government holds.
To expand that potential, the public is being invited to suggest what data should be made available in the future, again marking a shift from a more traditional approach in which government alone would decide what to make public. And the DataBC team is reaching out to the community through events like a hackathon in August, where developers, active citizens and public service employees came together to collaborate on uses for open data. Demonstrating the potential of the data, that first one-day hackathon resulted in apps to:
- help non-profits evaluate the community impact of funding decisions;
- help students use labour market data to map out career paths;
- improve reporting of invasive plant species; and
- improve access to local freshwater fishing regulations.
“The work we’ve done to make all this possible was complex and challenging,” says Henderson, citing the need to establish new internal processes and manage within existing legislative frameworks. “But this is really much more than just an operational change. This is a real philosophical shift in how we work within government and how we engage with citizens in a much more collaborative way.”
Rueben Bronee is executive director of the Public Service Initiative with B.C.’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services.
Check out B.C.’s open government initiative online:
Citizen-centric web presence: gov.bc.ca
Open Information: openinfo.gov.bc.ca
DataBC blog: blog.data.gov.bc.ca
DataBC on Twitter: @Data_BC