When GTEC begins on November 5 in Ottawa, British Columbia will be on display. Kim Henderson, Deputy Minister, Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government, spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe about B.C.’s role as this year’s showcase province.
What progress has the province made toward open government?
Just over a year ago B.C. went live with Canada’s first approach to open government with an open data platform. At the time we had over 2,400 data sets that citizens were able to reuse and repurpose. We also launched an open information platform where we’ve made available routine releases of information like expenses and also made available any general freedom-of-information requests that are made by applicants.
As well, we launched a brand new web presence for the province that was based on focus groups with citizens on how they want to interact with government.
What did you learn in those consultations?
We learned that our web was designed around the structure of government. I would challenge any of us to go on a government website and try and figure out where government programs may live at any given point in time. Citizens come at these things more intuitively and the structure of government doesn’t matter to them when they are trying to access services. They just want to know how to get to the information they need quickly, so we completely redesigned the site so it isn’t based on ministry structure.
You have also made great progress in identity management.
We will launch the BC Services Card in November and we will be the first province to do any kind of program such as this. Citizens will have the option to have a combination of healthcare card and their driver’s license. On that card will be a chip that will enable the identity authentication services that BC will provide. We see this being a new authentication model for citizens to prove their identity online so they can do more high-value transactions with government in the future. The first agency that is joined up with us is Elections BC, so this will be the platform that B.C. uses for online voting.
Another project is the Drive BC Mobile Initiative. Is this a priority because more citizens are using these devices?
That’s right. I think government has taken too long to catch up with that revolution; if we were a private sector corporation, I don’t think our customers would have waited this long for us to get to mobile. Drive BC is an excellent example where folks are going to want to use their mobile devices to find out what road conditions are like.
What other mobile apps do you envision?
We are doing an app now for healthcare information that will provide you with access to your closest public health clinic and general healthcare information. We are building one that will help you find service centres in B.C. We’re trying to figure out different ones we can use in education such as one where parents can go and see all the different ways their school is performing. We’re looking at fun apps to help parents come up with nutritious ways to pack a kids lunch.
There are some things governments can build but we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we’ve made our data available to developers. We need to grow that data catalogue so we can get some really high value apps.
What is your connection to the BC Education Plan?
Obviously the policy side of the BC Education Plan is being driven by our Ministry of Education and their stakeholders. We’ve been able add some value on how to engage citizens, which happens to be one of the main goals or shifts we have as part of our open government plan.
It’s one thing to make information available to citizens, but how do you encourage citizens to be engaged in these public policy issues so they can add value? I think citizens’ attitudes have changed; they don’t think that they elect a government and four years later they get to have a say again as to what that government should be. Social media has really changed that. Citizens want to interact and the BC Education Plan is a key example where we’ve added social media elements so teachers and parents and students and the general public can provide feedback and richness to the policy debate.
Is your role with the BC Jobs Plan the same?
This is another way where we’re trying to engage citizens in a different way so government has some ideas for things that they want to do. We partnered that up with some data so that folks can analyze and release a lot more information than we ever would have made public before. It’s not just limited to social media because not everyone wants to engage that way. There will still be some traditional styles of outreach to stakeholders, but it’s really trying to encourage citizens to be participants in their government.
What’s the driver for all this?
We pride ourselves in being creative and innovative in B.C. We’ve had a really good leadership team that has prized innovation. And from tight budgets come real ingenuity in how to do some things. And I give a lot of credit to our government chief information officer, Dave Nikolejsin, who’s always trying to push the boundaries. But I think it’s the combination of some bright creative staff and the leadership team being able to take those risks and think in different ways that’s jelled well for us.
We have a group of deputy ministers that we call the Committee on Transformation, which is chaired by our deputy minister to the premier, and it provides the governance on how we’re able to drive B.C. agendas like open government and the BC Services Card. These 12 high profile deputies have helped drive the strategy and enable us as the central agency to get cross-government buy-in on lots of our programs.
What would you say to colleagues across the country?
My core message is to take risks. Government really needs to be part of this revolution built on openness, transparency and the use of social media to engage with citizens in different ways. B.C.’s taken the approach to say, “we want to be at the front of the pack here.” We don’t want to have this happen to us in several years.
Citizens will demand this. In B.C. we built a really solid platform that can be repurposed across the country and we’re happy to share our lessons learned. We’ve got a long way to go; it’s a massive cultural shift for the public service, politicians and the public to see this new style and its going to take some time.
What, in your experience, is the cultural shift for public servants?
I think we breed public servants to be risk averse, especially when it comes to outreach. Using different social media styles to communicate with citizens and being more open about information is not anything we’ve ever preached before. We’ve preached the opposite, which is more a culture of confidentiality where only officials can speak to media and only officials can speak publicly. We’re turning that on its head.
It takes some time for folks to realize that they’re going to be supported in having those conversations and actually encouraged to do so. For example, the BC Education Plan had a whole team to monitor and be part of the blog postings and the Twitter account and it changed the nature of the work for those employees because people aren’t going to participate just between 8:30 and 4:30. We had to have completely different working hours.