Yesterday, I participated in a short teleconference with Canada’s open government advisory panel considering the next version of the country’s open government “action plan.” As readers may know, I accepted an invitation in 2012 from Canadian Minister of Parliament Tony Clement, the president of Canada’s Treasury Board, to be a member of Canada’s advisory panel on open government, joining others from Canada’s tech industry, the academy and civil society. (I shared several recommendations for open government in the first meeting, held on February 28th, 2012, and in another in 2013.)
In preparation for yesterday’s discussion, I downloaded the Open Government Partnership’s Internal Review Mechanism’s report on Canada, which highlights progress in meeting the country’s (largely self-defined) goals for open government, particularly with respect to open data, and identified significant weaknesses in the public consultation taken to date.
The consultative process during the development of the action plan was weak. The consultation, which was only done online, including a Twitter chat session with the TBS President, took place during a public holiday and no draft plan was circulated in advance for discussion. There was minimal awareness raising around the consultation process, which resulted in low participation.
The IRM researcher found minimal evidence of attempts to engage civil society during implementation of the action plan with the exception of the consultation on open data and the Open Government Licence. Consultation on commitments in these areas was seen as significantly stronger and more productive than the consultations for development of the action plan and the year one government selfRassessment.
Consultation of the self assessment report was carried out online and was not widely publicized, resulting in a limited level of participation.
Based upon this report and my own observations, I made three suggestions on yesterday’s call:
1) Adoption of an open source e-petition platform from the United Kingdom. While many people remain dubious about online petitions, the tool could be seeded with proposed open government reforms and solicit new ones.
2) Acknowledgement of ongoing debates about electronic surveillance. The Harper administration should launch a more proactive public discussion of what the Canadian people have a right to know about how their electronic communications are being collected, stored and used. Any broad consultation around open government Canada will include this issue.
3) More civic engagement with the media. If improving public consultation is a priority, government officials must go onto television and radio broadcasts, along with sitting down for print interviews. Public engagement through social media and government websites are simply not enough.
The Canadian government should also engage journalists who are making information requests, specifically data journalists, as they are key players in the ecosystem around confirming data releases and quality. If the government faces significant doubts, it will have to turn to more trusted third parties to validate its programs and their efficacy.
While officials are bound to take heat from skeptical journalists, if the Harper administration is serious about open, more accountable government, its representatives should do so to address criticisms regarding silencing scientists and eliminating Canada’s long form census, a choice that will ironically weaken the quality of the open government data releases that the government itself touts.
Minister Clement acknowledged my concerns, feedback and criticism.
[Image Credit: Open Government Partnership]