Canada’s Open Government initiative has already delivered some good things and promises many more. One of the good things is the government’s second Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16, which was drafted after consultations with Canadians. The plan’s intro states the aim of open government:
“As part of the global open government movement, governments seek to broaden access to data and information, ensure transparency and accountability, and strengthen citizen engagement in the activities of government and in the democratic process.”
The government’s initiative has achieved some of this already, in addition to launching the new plan.
In June 2013, it launched an open data portal that now has over 200,000 publicly available government data sets in machine readable format. In late 2014, it introduced its new government-wide website, Canada.ca, that is supposed to provide intuitive navigation features to help Canadians find the information they need more quickly and easily. Based on a short experiment I did, information is, in fact, easy to find – which is due to the very smart choice to use Google as the Canada.ca internal search engine. Using the site’s search engine, I easily found mobile-friendly information on various topics, quickly and easily.
In the spirit of transparency, the government posted the public consultation report and the complete transcripts from the Open Government Twitter town halls Treasury Board President Tony Clement did as part of the consultations.
The Action Plan makes commitments (12 of them) that, if all kept, will give the government a shot at delivering on the ideals in its intro.
However, the Open Government initiative in general, and the Action Plan in particular, have some issues, with the biggest being the little attention it gives the uneven distribution of digital opportunity, known commonly as the “digital divide”.
The Action Plan doesn’t mention the term “digital divide” despite Open Government consultation participants specifically calling for it (see Inclusiveness and the Digital Divide). Interestingly, the government posted comments on the Open Government Action Plan below the plan itself and one from Ottawa’s Susan Hall, from November 2014, says “Really pleased about the digital divide entry; does not go far enough”. I responded to this comment asking where the entry was and got this reply from “ :
The Open Government Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16 includes some deliverables addressing digital divide by committing to the following deliverables :
Deliverables to be completed in 2014-16:
– Sponsor projects to increase understanding of the relationship between digital skills and relevant labour market and social outcomes, including building a profile of Canadians’ digital skills competencies by region and by demographic group.
– Develop online tools, training materials, and other resources to enable individual Canadians to assess and improve their digital skills.
– Fund private sector and civil society initiatives aimed at improving the digital skills of Canadians (e.g., digital skills in rural small business, essential skills for Northern youth, business technology management accreditation).
You can find more information in the plan under the digital litteracy section.
I then asked what has been accomplished on this and what specific demographic groups they are looking at.
As of posting this, I had received no response to my second comment.
The other key issue is that, although the government posted comments from the Open Government consultations, it gives no clear indication whether any were incorporated in the final document. This does little to respond to critics like Michael Geist, holder of University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, who critiqued the Open Government initiative “for what it hides.”
Part IV of the Action Plan on Open Government, titled Canada’s Action Plan 2.0 Commitments, says, “Canada’s second Action Plan on Open Government consists of 12 commitments that will advance open government principles in Canada over the next two years and beyond.”
However, there’s no clear list of 12 commitments. There is a list with lettered and numbered entries – but they don’t add up to 12 no matter how you count them. Assuming what the commitments are, in the absence of a clear list, the next big issue is how solid each of them really is.
One commitment related to transparency in particular, about making mining companies report how much money they give governments, seems great at face value. However, it loses its luster quickly when one digs below the surface. As Canada’s open government guru David Eaves wrote in his March 4, 2014 blog post, Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure, instead of creating one public report database, the government will only require companies to post the reports somewhere on their own websites. Eaves also points out that although Canada boasts of the $12.7 million it gave to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as of this posting Canada had not adopted the transparency standards on which the initiative is built.
Last of the big issues is that, for a two-year old, major government initiative driven by the powerful Treasury Board – anecdotal evidence suggests Canada’s Open Government program isn’t well known (although, I concede my evidence is simply asking my fellow government communicators, none of whom had heard of it).
The devil is in the details (if we could only find them)
So that’s it for the big stuff. The small stuff is easier to fix.
The Open Government initiative has three streams: Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue, which is confusing right of the bat because it begs the question: what’s the difference between data and information? Open Data is about making government raw data sets available for download in machine readable format. Open Information is about making government information like completed Access to Information Requests and contracts accessible and easily searchable online.
But if people get that clear, the Open Government website confuses them all over again with this search box:
The site has some good content that is, unfortunately, badly organized and therefore hard to find – or discover. For example, the headings for the three streams, Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue, are in a group of seven headings making it unclear they’re the three pillars of the program.
The result is that key items, like the Open Government Blog, are buried (I had to email the Open Government team to find out where it was, after I read about it on another part of the site.)
Then there’s the issue of some content not delivering what it promises. This is particularly true with the “Communities” section. It doesn’t have communities. It has collections of data picked by “the Open Government team with input from our users”, with little ability for users to connect with the Open Government team or each other.
The new Canada.ca website claims to provide “better use of social media”, which would seem to indicate it will allow more dialogue with Canadians which social media channels enable. However, if that’s what it means, then there’s an issue. Yes, the site provides links to all Government of Canada social media sites but does so in one of the least user-friendly ways possible: what I’ll call The Multi-page Frustrator. The list of government social media sites is presented like a list of Google results, so if what you’re looking for isn’t on the front page, it’s a pain in the butt to find it. (Thankfully, there’s a Google-powered search engine which, of course, works well.)
The bottom line is, if Canadians hold the government to its transparency commitment, all other issues can be resolved by being dragged in to the light of day.