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Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government: A Review

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David Eaves

The other day the Canadian Government published its Action Plan on Open Government, a high level document that both lays out the Government’s goals on this file as well as fulfill its pledge to create tangible goals as part of its participation in next week’s Open Government Partnership 2012 annual meeting in Brazil.

So what does the document say and what does it mean? Here is my take.

Take Away #1: Not a breakthrough document

There is much that is good in the government’s action plan – some of which I will highlight later. But for those hoping that Canada was going to get the Gov 2.0 bug and try to leapfrog leaders like the United States or the United Kingdom, this document will disappoint. By and large this document is not about transforming government – even at its most ambitious it appears to be much more about engaging in some medium sized experiments.

As a result the document emphasizes a number of things that the UK and US started doing several years ago such getting license that adheres to international norms or posting government resource allocation and performance management information online in machine readable forms or refining the open data portal.

What you don’t see are explicit references to try to re-think how government leverages citizens experience and knowledge with a site like Challenge.gov, engage experts in innovative ways such as with Peer to Patent, or work with industries or provinces to generate personal open data such as the US has done with the Blue Button (for Healthcare) or the Green Button (for utilities).

Take Away #2: A Solid Foundation

This said, there is much in the document that is good. Specifically, in many areas, it does lay a solid foundation for some future successes. Probably the most important statements are the “foundational commitments” that appear on this page. Here are some key points:

Open Government Directive

In Year 1 of our Action Plan, we will confirm our policy direction for Open Government by issuing a new Directive on Open Government. The Directive will provide guidance to 106 federal departments and agencies on what they must do to maximize the availability of online information and data, identify the nature of information to be published, as well as the timing, formats, and standards that departments will be required to adopt… The clear goal of this Directive is to make Open Government and open information the ‘default’ approach.

This last sentence is nice to read. Of course the devil will be in the detail (and in the execution) but establishing a directive around open information could end being as important (although admittedly not as powerful – an important point) as the establishment of Access to Information. Done right such a directive could vastly expand the range of documents made available to the public, something that should be very doable as more and more government documentation moves into digital formats.

For those complaining about the lack of ATI reform in the document this directive, and its creation will be with further exploration. There is an enormous opportunity here to reset how government discloses information – and “the default to open” line creates a public standard that we can try to hold the government to account on.

And of course the real test for all this will come in years 2-3 when it comes time to disclose documents around something sensitive to the government… like, say, around the issue of the Northern Gateway Pipeline (or something akin to the Afghan Prisoner issue). In theory this directive should make all government research and assessments open, when this moment happens we’ll have a real test of the robustness of any new such directive.

Open Government License:

To support the Directive and reduce the administrative burden of managing multiple licensing regimes across the Government of Canada, we will issue a new universal Open Government License in Year 1 of our Action Plan with the goal of removing restrictions on the reuse of published Government of Canada information (data, info, websites, publications) and aligning with international best practices… The purpose of the new Open Government License will be to promote the re-use of federal information as widely as possible...

Full Disclosure: I have been pushing (in an unpaid capacity) for the government to reform its license and helping out in its discussions with other jurisdictions around how it can incorporate the best practices and most permissive language possible.

This is another important foundational piece. To be clear, this is not about an “open data” license. This is about creating a licensing for all government information and media. I suspect this appeals to this government in part because it ends the craziness of having lawyers across government constantly re-inventing new licenses and creating a complex set of licenses to manage. Let me be clear about what I think this means: This is functionally about neutering crown copyright. It’s about creating a licensing regime that makes very clear what the users rights are (which crown copyright does not doe) and that is as permissive as possible about re-use (which crown copyright, because of its lack of clarity, is not). Achieving such a license is a critical step to doing many of the more ambitious open government and gov 2.0 activities that many of us would like to see happen.

Take Away #3: The Good and Bad Around Access to Information

For many, I think this may be the biggest disappointment is that the government has chosen not to try to update the Access to Information Act. It is true that this is what the Access to Information Commissioners from across the country recommended they do in an open letter (recommendation #2 in their letter). Opening up the act likely has a number of political risks – particularly for a government that has not always been forthcoming documents (the Afghan detainee issue and F-35 contract both come to mind) – however, I again propose that it may be possible to achieve some of the objectives around improved access through the Open Government Directive.

What I think shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the government’s “experiment” around modernizing the administration of Access to Information:

To improve service quality and ease of access for citizens, and to reduce processing costs for institutions, we will begin modernizing and centralizing the platforms supporting the administration of Access to Information (ATI). In Year 1, we will pilot online request and payment services for a number of departments allowing Canadians for the first time to submit and pay for ATI requests online with the goal of having this capability available to all departments as soon as feasible. In Years 2 and 3, we will make completed ATI request summaries searchable online, and we will focus on the design and implementation of a standardized, modern, ATI solution to be used by all federal departments and

These are welcome improvements. As one colleague – James McKinney – noted, the fact that you have to pay with a check means that only people with Canadian bank accounts can make ATIP requests. This largely means just Canadian citizens. This is ridiculous. Moreover, the process is slow and painful (who uses check! the Brits are phasing them out by 2018 – good on em!). The use of checks creates a real barrier – particularly I think, for young people.

Also, being able search summaries of previous requests is a no-brainer.

Take Away #4: The is a document of experiments

As I mentioned earlier, outside the foundational commitments, the document reads less like a grand experiment and more like a series of small experiments.

Here the Virtual Library is another interesting commitment – certainly during the consultations the number one complaint was that people have a hard time finding what they are looking for on government websites. Sadly, even if you know the name of the document you want, it is still often hard to find. A virtual library is meant to address this concern – obviously it is all going to be in the implementation – but it is a response to a genuine expressed need.

Meanwhile the Advancing Recordkeeping in the Government of Canada and User-Centric Web Services feel like projects that were maybe already in the pipeline before Open Government came on the scene. They certainly do conform with the shared services and IT centralization announced by Treasury Board last year. They could be helpful but honestly, these will all be about execution since these types of projects can harmonize processes and save money, or they can become enormous boondoggles that everyone tries to work around since they don’t meet anyone’s requirements. If they do go the right way, I can definitely imagine how they might help the management of ATI requests (I have to imagine it would make it easier to track down a document).

I am deeply excited about the implementation of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). This is something I’ve campaigned for and urged the government to adopt, so it is great to see. I think these types of cross jurisdictional standards have a huge role to play in the open government movement, so joining one, figuring out what about the implementation works and doesn’t work, and assessing its impact, is important both for Open Government in general but also for Canada, as it will let us learn lessons that, I hope, will become applicable in other areas as more of these types of standards emerge.

Conclusion:

I think it was always going to be a stretch to imagine Canada taking a leadership role in Open Government space, at least at this point. Frankly, we have a lot of catching up to do, just to draw even with places like the US and the UK which have been working hard to keep experimenting with new ideas in the space. What is promising about the document is that it does present an opportunity for some foundational pieces to be put into play. The bad news is that real efforts to rethink governments relationship with citizens, or even the role of the public servant within a digital government, have not been taken very far.

So… a C+?

Additional disclaimer: As many of my readers know, I sit on the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel. My role on this panel is to serve as a challenge function to the ideas that are presented to us. In this capacity I share with them the same information I share with you – I try to be candid about what I think works and doesn’t work around ideas they put forward. Interestingly, I did not see even a draft version of the Action Plan until it was posted to the website and was (obviously by inference) not involved in its creation. Just want to share all that to be, well, transparent, about where I’m coming from – which remains as a citizen who cares about these issues and wants to push governments to do more around gov 2.0 and open gov.

Also, sorry or the typos, but I’m sick and it is 1am. So I’m checking out. Will proof read again when I awake.

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