The Canadian government unveiled its open government initiative amid considerable fanfare earlier this year. Just days before the spring election, then-Treasury Board President Stockwell Day announced specific commitments to open dialogue and open government involving three separate streams.
First, an open data stream, in which government data would be made openly available to the public so that it could be leveraged for new purposes without the need for prior permission. Open data initiatives by governments around the world have generated dozens of commercial and non-commercial websites that add value to the government data. Some make the data more understandable by using interactive maps to provide visuals about where activities are taking place (e.g. government spending projects). Others make the data more accessible by offering services to customize or deliver government information (e.g. postal codes to allow public interest groups to launch advocacy campaigns). The crucial aspect behind these initiatives is that the government makes the data available in open formats free from restrictive licences so companies and civil society groups can create innovative websites, tools, and online services.
The second stream involved open information, including a commitment to proactively post completed Access to Information requests online. That commitment comes several years after the cancellation of the CAIRS database, which was widely used to track new access to information requests. Increasing public availability of completed requests has obvious benefits for taxpayers, since it reduces duplication and increases the likelihood that the access to information records will be broadly disseminated.
The third stream involved a commitment to open dialogue, including opportunities for greater public engagement in the policy making process. Internet tools have been used for some Canadian consultations with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission launching online consultations to gather public input into emerging issues. The open dialogue commitment pointed to consultations on science, health, and regulatory red tape.
While the open government initiative garnered initial public support (with some quibbling over an unnecessarily restrictive licence), seven months later the initiative is gathering dust. The original website – online at open.gc.ca – still features a photo of Day, who retired from politics just one week after the initial announcement. The site was last updated on March 18, 2011, the same date as the policy announcement. A review of several government department websites reveals no proactive disclosure of completed access to information requests as initially promised.
While some delays due to the election call were understandable, seven months of inaction might lead skeptics to wonder whether the entire announcement was little more than a publicity stunt. The delays are particularly discouraging given Canada’s willingness to pressure others about the value of open government.
Last month, Canada became one of 46 countries to join the Open Government Partnership, which is focused on the availability of information about governmental activities, supporting civic participation, and increasing access to new technologies for openness and accountability. A letter from Foreign Minister John Baird to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirming Canada’s participation noted the June Speech from the Throne that reaffirmed support for open data, open information, and open dialogue.
Yet unlike many other countries which delivered on open government commitments, the Canadian letter was merely a letter of intent, with the expectation of delivering on the commitments in March 2012, one year after the open government initiative was first announced. The government has fast tracked crime legislation and a host of other issues, yet discouragingly its open government initiative seemingly still lags behind at the starting gate.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.