Eight open government recommendations for Canada

Earlier this year, I accepted an invitation 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. The first — and only — meeting to date was held via telepresence on February 28th, 2012.

I chose to accept the invitation to sit on this panel — in an unpaid, nonbinding and entirely voluntary role — because I viewed it in the same vein as my participation in the open consultation on the U.S. National Plan for Open Government that the White House held prior to the launch of the Open Government Partnership last year. I viewed it as an opportunity to represent a perspective at the (virtual) table that valued the role of journalism and civil society. I disclosed my involvement on the panel using the Internet, including Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Here are the recommendations I made when I had an opportunity to speak:

1) Cooperation or partnerships with media for publishing and improving open government data. The Guardian’s datablog is top-notch in covering the United Kingdom efforts. This could include the ability to bring “cleaned” data back into a media platform. This should never preclude investigative work in the service of government accountability in the use of that data nor any restrictions regarding journalistic work.

2) A mobile strategy to involve citizens in governance, particularly remote towns, an issue in the immense country of Canada. Government should not neglect mobile websites, email and txt in favor of “Web 2.0” services.

3) An “analog” strategy, to ensure all citizens offline are included in any open government process, whether it involves a consultation, election, budgetary guidance, including the use of phones and town halls.

4) A demand-sensitive approach to freedom of information requests. Media and open government advocates should be further empowered to get more access to crucial “good government” records and to ask direct questions of public officials. Dataset releases should be prioritized by both the public interest and in the public interest.

5) A focus on releasing raw government performance data about government services and about regulated industries, as means of driving transparency into industries and government, providing material for both government and corporate watchdogs to hold institutions more accountable. Joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as the United States has done, would be a substantive example of such a move.

6) A national citizen scanning initiative, akin to Carl Malamud’s “Yes We Scan” notion, to digitize government information.

7) A focus on meaningful engagement on social media platforms, not simply broadcasting political agendas, with incentives to listen to the concerns of constituents, not increase the volume of outbound communication.

8 ) Measure open data outcomes, not volume: I suggested later in the meeting that measuring the impact of open data should not come from the number of data sets published nor the number of apps on the minister’s iPhone. The success of the effort would be judged upon A) improvements to internal efficiency or productivity, B) downstream use of data, not total datasets published C) the number of applications that are actively used by citizens, whether in the service of driving greater accountability or civic utility.

A note on disclosure

Questions have been raised by author Evgeny Morozov about whether I should be on this panel or not, given that I write about open government. (He indicated on Twitter that he thinks that I should not be.) I asked several professors and editors prior to accepting the offer if they saw an issue with joining, prior to accepting the offer. All replied I could do so if I was open about my involvement and disclosed it. The Canadian government itself subsequently made that disclosure, along with my social publications on February 28th. I have been waiting for them to publish a more detailed, full record of the open government panel discussion, to no avail. (The above recommendations constitute publication of my notes made prior and during to the meeting but should not be viewed a transcript. An extremeley general, high level summary can be found at open.gc.ca.)

To date, in that context, my sole involvement has been to give feedback on Canada’s open government plan, listed above, over a teleconference screen. I have also talked with David Eaves, who also sits on the advisory panel (see his post on his involvement for more information).

When I was in Brazil last month for the Open Government Partnership conference, I did attend a dinner at the Canadian embassy that included Clement and the Canadian delegation, along with Eaves. While I was there, I talked with Canada’s deputy CIO about how I personally used social media and derived value from it, along with how I had observed large institutions accumulate and retrieve knowledge internally using collaboration software. I also talked with attendees about hockey, Brazil, dinner itself, and Eaves’ experience being a father of a newborn baby. I do not know if open government or open data were the subject of subsequent conversation with the Clement, ambassador or their staff: I left after dessert.

If you have strong opinions about my involvement, as described above or elsewhere, please ring in in the comments or contact me directly at alex@oreilly.com.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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