In 2011, eight countries signed on to an Open Government Partnership, committing to make their governments more accountable and responsive. Today, that partnership has grown to 62 countries, including Canada. Open Government is now a global movement that is changing the way federal, regional and local governments operate. Recently, Ontario joined that movement.
“Let’s do government differently,” Premier Kathleen Wynne wrote in an open letter to the people of Ontario, outlining a plan for Open Government that includes three streams: Open Dialogue, Open Information and Open Data.
“Open Government represents an exciting shift and evolution in how government works,” said Ontario’s Secretary of the Cabinet Peter Wallace. “In some ways, it represents a natural next step in the way we do our jobs — in the way we develop policy, implement programs and services and communicate.”
Open Dialogue is about increasing opportunities for the public to provide informed and meaningful input on legislation, policies and programs that affect them. This goes beyond the traditional “town hall” model of consultations; it’s about building a better mechanism for continued and sustained dialogue. We want to engage a wider range of stakeholders, and keep them involved in the decision-making and implementation stage where they’ve previously been absent.
A good example is the recent consultations held on modernizing Ontario’s Condo Act. Developers, condo owners, condo managers and government were brought together to obtain insights, solutions and a path forward that worked for all the various stakeholders. This enriched the process and provided solutions that would not have been available through the traditional approach.
We have also put together an Open Government Engagement Team, chaired by Don Lenihan of the Public Policy Forum. The nine-person team has spent the last few months travelling the province, connecting with the public, elected officials and public servants, to find out how people would like to engage, what they want to see change in government, and how they’d like to see the Open Government initiative evolve. Their report-back will be submitted to the government in February.
The idea of open information is one that’s already embedded in all Canadian governments – we all have processes related to freedom of information, for example. But as the second stream in Ontario’s Open Government plan, we want to take this idea further. The second stream, Open Information, is about proactive and routine disclosure of government information.
This not only makes things more convenient for the public, it has the potential to make government more efficient by saving time and money (e.g., handling of fewer freedom of information requests.)
The third, and most mature, stream of Ontario’s plan is Open Data. This means making government data available in machine-readable format so that people and businesses can access it, use it or repurpose it to develop new ideas, services and applications. Other regions have found that opening up data has been a boon for research, business and the public; the United States has reported that GPS and weather data injected billions into their economy, and access to data gives web and app developers opportunities to create useful products and services.
In November 2012, Ontario launched an open data portal. It now has 170 data sets, but this represents just a small fraction of the data we hold. We’ve put together an inventory of all available data sets and will be polling the public, as well as public servants, to help us prioritize the order of their release.
But open data is about more than making existing data sets public. Ontario’s public servants are being asked to embed openness into their projects from the beginning.
All Ontario ministries have been tasked with completing a customized Open Government action plan that includes accomplishments to date, activities currently underway, and any projects that support open data, open information or open dialogue planned for this year.
But beyond work plans, open government means a new way of working, and a new way of serving the public – it requires a significant culture shift.
“It means integrating a culture of openness into everything we do,” says Wallace. “We need to adopt this approach not only in the ways we engage the public, but in the ways we interact with and share information with each other.”
By being more open, especially with our data and our information, we create a level of uncertainty. We can’t predict what the public will do with that information and what they might find when they combine it with other information.
But in this space of uncertainty, there is also a great deal of opportunity. By taking advantage of the “wisdom of crowds” we can leverage more insight, more information, and more ideas than governments have ever had access to.