Democracy is changing. Digital and mobile technologies are transforming politics, especially the ways in which citizens and government interact and the avenues through which citizens can engage. The City of Guelph, through the creation of its Open Government Action Plan – Canada’s first – is embracing this change.
The idea of open government is not new. It has been emerging over the past few years, primarily in a test and learn capacity, and driven by the particular interests of administrators and politicians.
In Guelph, the municipality’s Open Government Framework, created by then city Clerk Blair Labelle and approved by Council in November 2012, laid out the vision of what open government could mean to the city in the digital age.
Delvinia won a RFP to assist Guelph in developing an action plan to help the municipality realize its vision of new digital experiences to engage and inform residents in politics to a greater degree.
To embark on this project we developed a three-phased strategy to define a deliberate and realistic five-year action plan to move the city toward open government. Phase 1, the Current Assessment, was designed to ensure the project team could build a foundation of key insights from the best-of-breed activities around the world. This phase was made up of two concurrent paths: a best practice and policy review, and an organizational environmental scan and community scan.
The best practice review consisted of conducting research to examine what open government activities were going on around the world. This included a holistic approach and was essentially designed to help answer the question: What does successful open government look like?
Our academic partners at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs conducted a policy review which included a landscape scan of best-of-breed governmental policy practices and compared those with the practices within the City of Guelph.
From there we conducted an organizational environmental scan of what was occurring across all departments within the city. The goal was to understand the internal starting point for the Open Government Action Plan project, to gain an appreciation of internal stakeholder perspectives, and to clarify the roles that staff saw themselves playing. To achieve these objectives, we surveyed and consulted councillors as well as 55 internal stakeholders.
Not surprisingly, we discovered that no one model for open government existed. However, we found there were a consistent set of rules of engagement that made some initiatives more successful than others. These key success factors included:
• The importance of an integrated approach since the different aspects of open government are not mutually exclusive;
• Having supporting cultures within all stakeholder groups of leadership, public service employees and external communities;
• Maintaining a sense of shared ownership amongst all stakeholder groups throughout the entire process of strategy, planning and implementation; and,
• Maintaining a test-and-learn culture since much of this has not been done before.
The outcome of the internal organizational scan was also fascinating. While most of those interviewed were very positive about the direction the city was moving in, a number of common gaps emerged. These included:
• The need for a more open and collaborative organizational culture;
• A clear definition of the open government initiative at the city;
• A corporate resource management and prioritization framework informed by citizens; and,
• A recognition that city data may not be ready for public use.
From this point we moved on to Phase 2, the community scan, during which a series of collaborative exercises were employed to engage various community groups identified in Phase 1. Numerous roundtables were held to involve the community in the process and to share the findings from Phase 1. These were intended to both educate the stakeholder groups about best practices and also to provide a platform to provide input into the process itself.
An online ideation tool was used to share ideas openly with any interested stakeholders and an experiential survey was developed that included videos of Mayor Karen Farbridge describing each of the pillars of open government at the City of Guelph. This was followed by a series of questions to solicit feedback and assess participants’ understanding of the community.
While anonymous, the survey allowed respondents to self-identify as internal or external stakeholders. Since this was an open survey and there would be interest from outside of the community, we also asked respondents to identify whether they were from within or outside of the Guelph area.
As we moved through the process we knew it was one thing to develop an action plan, but another thing entirely to ensure it could be implemented and would be a success. Assessing and understanding the readiness of the city and the community was key. So we included an open government readiness questionnaire within the online survey to determine the relative readiness of both the community and internal stakeholders.
Delvinia’s open government readiness tool helped to place the city’s readiness relative to its external stakeholder and community groups. The purpose of this tool was not to judge any stakeholder group, but to help frame the priorities for the Action Plan implementation. Interestingly, the readiness tool showed that the city was just a little more ready than the community. This was neither good nor bad, but simply showed Guelph that while education was needed both internally and externally, the city needed to provide leadership to educate their external community stakeholders.
Ultimately, the purpose of the first two phases of this process was to help paint a picture of the current state of open government in Guelph. The third phase then involved developing the action plan itself, which was not simply a report but a detailed roadmap based upon the current assessment, the open government readiness and the community scan.
The resulting roadmap set priorities, clear milestones for success, and identified some quick wins.
Going through such an organizational change will take years, and in order to help to maintain perspective and momentum, it was important to ensure that the city could communicate the progress, even if was not something that could easily be observed from the outside.
The action plan itself includes three phases. The first is focused on building the foundation for open government and inviting participation from both within the city and community members. The second phase is about enabling change in the city and collaborating with the community. The final phase, “Living Open Guelph,” is where the vision of open government will be realized.
This past October, the Open Government Action Plan was presented to City Council. The Plan was unanimously approved, setting the city on an exciting and ambitions journey to better engage its citizens and stakeholders through the use of digital technologies – and establishing the municipality as a leader in the age of e-democracy.