For those interested in open government, October could shape up to be an exciting month. The government of Canada is set to release the second version of its open government action plan.
Expectations for this next version are high as many were underwhelmed by the first action plan, placing pressure on the government to deliver something that the community can really rally behind this time around.
The action plan is a requirement of Canada’s membership in the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a voluntary initiative where national governments develop concrete commitments aimed at improving transparency, empowering citizens, fighting corruption and generally improving governance. Canada has been participating in the OGP since 2011.
The first Canadian action plan was set into motion in 2012. It included 12 different commitment areas primarily organized around the themes of open information, open data and open dialogue. I conducted an independent analysis of the plan and the federal government’s progress on behalf of the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM), which carries out a biannual review of the activities of each member country.
On the surface, the IRM metrics show success. Canada had made good progress toward its commitments. In some cases it was ahead of schedule. However, a closer look showed room for improvement. Many of the commitments were seen as unambitious. And citizens were not adequately consulted in the development of the first action plan, nor were they frequently engaged during its implementation.
The IRM report made a number of recommendations for the government to consider in moving forward. Among these are:
- Develop more specific and ambitious commitments;
- Expand the focus beyond open data;
- Better engagement of citizens;
- Improve the flow of information and dealing with problems inherent in the access to information regime; and
- Ensure the usability of information and data.
Those consulted for the IRM study felt that the current informational environment in Canada is at odds with the notion of open government. This tension comes, in part, from the federal government’s poor record in responding to access to information requests, the muzzling of Canadian scientists, and the poor treatment of whistleblowers. Cuts made to public institutions that play an important role in information management and preservation, such as at the Library and Archives, as well as cuts made to the collection of government information, such as the elimination of the mandatory long form census, have also generated a great deal of skepticism around the current government’s commitment to openness and transparency.
There is genuine worry that such measures will have long-term implications on evidence-based policy development and, in turn, on the democratic health of the country. Some of Canada’s scientists, for example, have marched on Parliament Hill to decry cuts to scientific research and the flow of information under the banner of “no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.”
The process launched to develop a second action plan was vastly different from the one used for the first plan. The OGP requires participating countries to follow a consultation process in the development of action plans. In the preparation of the first plan, the Canadian process was weak. Canadians were consulted online over the holiday period between December 6, 2011 and January 16, 2012. They were not presented with a draft action plan and minimal OGP awareness-raising activities were undertaken.
As a result, participation was low. In total, 260 Canadians participated in the online consultation. Treasury Board Secretariat President Tony Clement held two twitter chats during the first consultation period that generated a number of tweets. While perhaps innovative, some have expressed concern over using a micro blogging platform where feedback is confined to 140 characters, to collect feedback on a substantial and complex policy issue.
Such feedback does not seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The consultation process for the second action plan had three phases:
- Consultation Plan (April 24 – August 8)
- Idea Dialogue (May 16 – August 8)
- Activities Discussion (August 8 – September 15).
Together, the three phases gave people an opportunity to comment on the rigor of the consultation process itself, to submit feedback online, to participate in one of the eight in-person consultations that were held across the country, and to comment on activities proposed to be included in the second action plan. In total, 621 ideas, comments and questions were collected online and in person between April 30, 2014 and July 31, 2014.
Three themes dominated the discussion: innovation and literacy; citizen engagement; and release early and improve often. Each theme appeared in approximately 23 percent of the 621 ideas, comments and questions. Other themes, including open data and open and agile culture were less prominent at eight and nine percent, respectively.
Improving open government is not an easy task. It means changing the culture within government, making openness the default position while at the same time respecting privacy and national security issues. It means dealing with the identity crisis that appears to be facing those working in the field of information management and for public servants to recognize the full value of information as a national resource.
It means embracing multi-jurisdictionality. Although the open government action plan only applies to the government of Canada, open government itself is not just a federal issue. It also means responding to the international environment and the open government movement, while at the same time building a form of open government that is specifically Canadian and reflects our distinctive features, such as official bilingualism and our multicultural heritage.
So far, open government has been a learning experience for Canada. There is work to be done. But, at the same time, we can’t forget that we are fortunate. We entered the OGP with a solid foundation. For example, our access to information legislation is well over two decades old. It needs work but some countries joining the OGP are still in the drafting stages. Here in Canada, our independent Information Commissioner has been actively seeking out public input to strengthen the access to information regime and been vocal about the changes that are needed.
We also have policies and practices on government proactive disclosure, recordkeeping and accessibility. We have an open data portal that regroups thousands of datasets from across several federal departments. Again, each of these areas is not perfect, but together they provide a foundation that not all countries have. Additionally, Canada has a free press that helps hold the government to account on openness and transparency issues. Finally, we live in a stable country.
We might take this for granted at times, but other OGP countries have faced multiple regime changes, civil unrest and a public service that can be virtually unrecognizable from one day to the next.
In part, it is this solid foundation that has created such high expectations for Canada’s open government action plans. While those in the open government community will be eagerly waiting for the second open government action plan, it is a document that will impact all Canadians and that will have implications for the trajectory of Canadian democracy.
A full copy of the independent review and the Canadian action plan can be found at opengovpartnership.org