The United States, Britain and Australia are moving toward open government that not only promotes information sharing and collaboration among public servants and between public servants and citizens, but also involves a paradigm shift in which information is seen as a readily accessible public resource. Suzanne Legault, the federal Interim Information Commissioner, explained to Editor Toby Fyfe why she thinks Canada has to move in this direction.
What do you see as the risks for governments in moving toward open information?
I think we have to talk about the risks of not moving toward the sharing of government information. If we do not go down that road, we risk becoming irrelevant in terms of government because we need to interact with our citizens and share our information if they are to participate in how we are governed. Are there difficulties for the government in sharing information? Yes, there are. We’d have to look at privacy issues, official languages issues, Crown copyright issues. There are serious legal implications, there are serious security implications, there are cost implications. All of these things would need to be addressed to get to an open government strategy. But we don’t have to see them as impediments because I think we have no choice but to move to an open government.
Why do we have no choice?
It’s already happening. Social media have transformed the way citizens interact with their public institutions and what they expect from their public institutions. I think we have no choice because there is a ground swell of demand for this type of interaction between government and citizens. We’re seeing it at the municipal level, we’re seeing it at the provincial level, and federally we have several grassroots bodies that are now developing open data sets using information that is available out there: they’re taking it, putting it on platforms where the data can be used, reused, mashed up, and used in different applications.
We’re also seeing examples of pieces of legislation that have actually had to be either pulled or amended because there’s been a vocal lack of critical public support. Citizens are taking control over their own consultation process and if they feel they have not been consulted they now have the power through social media to make their voices known to Parliament directly.
What other drivers are there?
Social media is really a key driver but also there are other things like the globalization of issues. When we’re talking about health or the environment, these are issues that transcend a specific government department, government and jurisdiction. What’s happening with the open government initiatives is that there are no longer impediments to using available data. When you have open data sets available in various jurisdictions, people can put them on different platforms and have international data sets which allow proper analysis of cross-cutting issues.
I think globalization is a key issue in terms of competitiveness. We cannot lag behind other jurisdictions that are opening up their data, that see their public information as a national asset to be used by innovators, creators, business people, researchers and academics.
The demands and the speed at which media requests information are also major drivers. People no longer want to wait or to request access to information in order to obtain information. They want that information now.
Finally, there is the new generation. This is how they grew up, this is how they work, this is what they expect, and not only within the public service. They expect to be able to interact with their stakeholders because that’s how they’re used to working.
So what do governments need to do to unleash the resource?
I think we first need to understand where we are now. We have, in Canada, a fairly high level of information that’s being disclosed normally via institutions’ websites and so on and we have some instances where there are good open data sets that are being made available. We have some at Natural Resources Canada; there are some at the municipal and provincial levels.
But what we really need now is to have a made-in-Canada open government strategy that’s going to coordinate all those efforts. We also have to have an open government strategy that’s going to pursue a coordinated, collaborative effort with its citizens.
We have to decide, in Canada, what our citizens want to know about what we’re doing. What data sets are they interested in? The idea is not just to dump a whole bunch of data because then it has no value. And after that, I think we have to anchor those principles in statutory and policy instruments. We have to determine for Canada and all levels of government what is going to be a made-in-Canada strategy. It is complex to move toward that new way of governance.
An issue that would come up which you haven’t mentioned is the risk to public servants of using these tools and releasing information. Is that part of the made-in-Canada solution, having to determine what’s going to be acceptable at the bureaucratic level?
I find that question very interesting, because to me that question is reflective of the way we think in the public service: we think in the terms of the risks to public servants working in a collaborative fashion as opposed to the major benefits that public servants would gain from that. But yes, the idea of a strategy that is coordinated and comes from the top, that looks at the risks and the benefits, that can communicate in a coordinated fashion not only to its citizens but also to its employees, addresses these issues.
But if it is led by top government officials, then that means the framework within which it is done must be properly laid out so that people who work in public institutions understand the boundaries of what is appropriate and what is not.
In the U.S., President Obama has promoted open government. In the U.K., a Minister for Digital Information was appointed. Does a made-in-Canada solution require political leadership?
It does require political leadership. We’ve spoken to our counterparts in the U.S. that work on the open government directive and they are adamant that the leadership from the President is crucial in moving the institutional apparatus forward because there is resistance. Similarly in the U.K., we’re seeing that, with the support of the Prime Minister, what they call “smarter government” has really moved forward. In Australia, there still isn’t high political leadership and there hasn’t been significant movement on the recommendations of a task force on open government as far as we can tell.
But I do think that the Clerk of the Privy Council would play a significant role. If you read the Clerk’s latest report to the Prime Minister and also the Fourth Report of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service, you’ll see that there is a recognition that a collaborative way of working, a more efficient way of working is very much part of their message. That is definitely part of an open government strategy because open government is part of working better, working faster, working more efficiently in ways that are more relevant to Canadians. The reports indicate that there could be an openness there, not only from the Clerk but also from the Prime Minister, in looking at these recommendations in the context of the benefits of an open government strategy.