That the new Liberal Government has embraced ‘open government’ is hardly surprising. President Obama promised much the same in 2008 (passing an inaugural Openness Directive early in 2009), as did Stephen Harper in 2006 with his post-Gomery Federal Accountability Act (an uncomfortable lesson for Liberals, as Ontarians know well, is that scandal is fertile breeding ground for openness pledges).
With a fresh start, Trudeau’s team can now pursue openness on their own terms, free from past transgressions. The Liberal manifesto defined open government in four ways: restoring the long-form census; expanding open data; improving access to information (and the transparency of requests and response times); and a new online portal to track government spending.
In gauging such measures, a bit of a reality check is called for: the first is already redundant in leading digital jurisdictions; the second builds on the one area where the Conservatives can legitimately claimed to have invested; and the fourth, as the Liberal platform itself noted, draws from reforms implemented years ago south of the border. The four steps, in other words, amount to incrementalism of the first order.
In fairness, however, other aspects of the Liberal plan address openness in indirect yet important ways: electoral and Parliamentary reforms and expanded political oversight of the national security apparatus are prime examples. The conduct of the public service also matters: providing oxygen to government scientists to speak more freely – in person and online, is a notable first step.
In short, the pursuit of more open government is now a given. The more salient choice for the Trudeau Government is fundamentally about how it views the relationship between openness and power, and between information and governance. In building on electoral pledges, a more traditional stance seeks heightened transparency as a means of deepening accountability and public trust. Through a more transformative lens, openness enables shared decision-making, both administratively and politically.
Such a choice rests first and foremost with the Prime Minister and his own calculus as to what matters to most Canadians: stronger results within existing institutions or a rethink of the institutions themselves? Outside of Canada, autocratic regimes are on the rise in places such as Turkey and Egypt – and anti-democratic tendencies are growing across much of Eastern Europe, both within and outside of the European Union.
Rising extremism and a stagnant economy have prodded French President Hollande to become more assertive in legislative affairs, largely abandoning past pledges of Parliamentary empowerment. Such context helps to explain Harper’s success in 2011 in portraying stability in the face of global economic turbulence – an approach that would backfire four years later due to a toxic mixture of security, immigration, and culture.
Shaped by Harper’s worldview, it is not surprising that amongst the three pillars of the prior Government’s formal Open Government Action Plan – Data, Information, and Dialogue, only the first would find any political traction. The others were simply too far removed from the confines of command and control governance for any meaningful action.
An alternative worldview of political leadership also exists. Dubbed the world’s most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine, most every decision made by Angela Merkel stems from negotiations within the legislature. The most open countries in the world (according to rankings by Transparency International) are typically governed by such power-sharing arrangements. Politics often correlates with technology: Estonia’s e-voting platform is open-source.
Electoral and Parliamentary reforms are thus essential ingredients of more open and digital government (see my previous column for a bit more discussion of such themes). Linking openness, collaboration, and participation was the aim of President Obama’s Inaugural Directive back in 2009. Yet despite significant achievements, by his own admission he has failed to loosen partisan gridlock and polarizing rhetoric (thereby feeding the ‘Washington is broken’ mantra of outsider candidates that, ironically, was the centrepiece of Obama’s first Presidential campaign).
In tackling our widely recognized democratic deficit, then, transparency is important though insufficient. Prime Minister Trudeau has signalled a willingness to empower his Ministers (and by extension, public servants), and to work with other political leaders both foreign and domestic. Hopefully, this inclusiveness will extend to both Parliament and the citizenry. Such is the essence of genuinely more open and transformative governance.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).