The state of open government in Canada

David Eaves on Canada's open government success stories and the folly of non-beta thinking

Open government isn’t about just one government. That’s why I got in touch with David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur and a speaker at this week’s Gov 2.0 International online conference. In the following Q&A, Eaves weighs in on the state of open government in Canada. He also talks about the ironic adoption of open government behind firewalls, and he calls government’s insistence on only releasing completed projects a “collectively imagined limitation.”

Canada’s local traction

Mac Slocum: Is open government moving forward in Canada? How does Canada compare to other countries?

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010David Eaves: The real successes of open government have occurred at the local level. Vancouver was the first city to adopt an “open motion,” which directed city staff to start sharing data, using open standards, and exploring the use of open source software. It was the second city in North America (after Washington D.C.) to launch an open data portal. Toronto and Edmonton have followed suit. These cities all have politicians who understand the potential of open government and are willing to be champions.

Also exciting are the pockets of success at other levels. I’ve been speaking with the staff at Canada’s Parliament buildings and they are increasingly interested in sharing Parliament’s agendas, bios of MPs, bills and other data that could help citizens better understand what is taking place in the nation’s capital. This is an important and exciting development.

At the provincial level, there has been very little discussion. The debate is virtually non-existent at the federal level. This isn’t to say there aren’t open data sets. Some federal ministries, in particular Natural Resources Canada, have been sharing geospatial data freely and openly for a number of years now. But this is an isolated exception. There is no effort to rethink policy around open data or open government at the federal level or in any province that I’m aware.

Broadly speaking, the open government movement in Canada has not penetrated governments — and in particular the political class — to the same degree it has in countries like the United States or Great Britain.

Federal challenges, private use

MS: What are the biggest challenges open government faces in Canada?

DE: There are several. The biggest is the lack of political leadership around this issue at the provincial and federal levels. Indeed, I know of IT vendors who have talked to key federal officials about this idea — citing the developments in both the U.K. and the United States — and they have been rebuffed.

In addition, the resources for advocacy in Canada are more limited than in the U.S. or the U.K. In the U.S, organizations like the Sunlight Foundation can show the government how it can be more transparent, hold the government to account on promises, and take non-machine-readable data and make it more accessible. Canada — due to its smaller size and, interestingly, tax law — has fewer foundations and donors who can sponsor such a project.

MS: Is there more adoption of social media and open government principles behind government firewalls?

DE: Definitely. This is an important debate that is presently taking place within government. The Canadian public service has actually led with some of the most innovative approaches, especially around the use of wikis behind a firewall. Natural Resources Canada has been drafting Deputy Minister briefing notes on a wiki, and GCPEDIA — a MediaWiki install — is available to any public servant who wishes to use it. [GCPEDIA is not publicly accessible — Ed.] I just wrote an article on this very subject in the Globe and Mail.

There is, however, significant resistance. Some of it is out of lack of understanding and fear of change. But there are also those who see social media as a threat to their capacity to control an issue or area. I’ve talked to public servants who have been ordered — by their bosses — not to work on GCPEDIA. Deeply interesting stuff.

Government needs more beta

MS: Broadly, do you think government’s focus on producing “final” projects hinders progress?

DE: Absolutely. Government’s obsession with a “final” product is in many ways a relic of the industrial era. The idea that only a finished product can be released to the public — a public whose needs both the private and public sector often misunderstand — means that huge cycles are wasted, and launch times delayed, in perfecting programs and products that often don’t hit the mark. Everything is a beta today because almost everything can be improved on the fly. What is saddest about this obsession with final products is that it isn’t connected to what government does or the technologies. It’s a collectively imagined limitation.

My sense is that the rise of social media will help spread the idea of a “patch culture.” One in which citizens and public servants are more empowered to offer critical feedback and make changes on the fly.

MS: Your chapter in “Open Government” touches on the DIRECT Launcher project, which is a great example of an external, non-government initiative influencing government projects. Is DIRECT Launcher an exception? Or, do you expect to see more of this external-to-internal collaboration?

DE: I think Direct Launcher is interesting because it is both external and internal simultaneously. It is actually initiated by government employees whose code of ethics and desire to serve citizens more effectively causes them to self-organize, and to circumvent the bureaucracy they are a part of.

Sadly, I believe this is presently an exception. This is a particularly tech savvy community and so they were able to use technology to self-organize in a way that might not be possible in other government agencies. However, as people become more comfortable with online tools, I do expect this type of activity to become more commonplace. DIRECT Launcher is a fascinating example as it demonstrates how authority and accountability will change in a Gov 2.0 world. The story here isn’t about how they self-organized, it’s about the implications for civil service culture, processes and hierarchy.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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