The Open Government Partnership (OGP) Regional Meeting for Europe 2014 by Open Government Partnership (CC BY 2.0)

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) Regional Meeting for Europe 2014 by Open Government Partnership (CC BY 2.0)


Why the Government’s Commitment to “Open by Default” Must Be Bigger Than Open Data

This week, I was pleased to participate in a joint initiative between the University of Ottawa’s Public Law Group and iPolitics to examine the government’s Speech from the Throne from many policy perspectives. This includes contributions from Professors Mendes, Morales, Oliver, Pal, Dodek, Forcese, Chalifour, and Cairns Way. My piece (iPolitics version, homepage version) focuses on the government’s commitment to “open by default”, which appears in all ministerial mandate letters. I note that the emphasis on open and transparent government in the Speech from the Throne was both welcome and unsurprising. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on openness and transparency with impressive commitments to transform how Canadians access government information.

While the Throne Speech was short on specifics, every ministerial mandate letter (whose release was itself an important step toward greater openness) stated:

We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government.  It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves.  Government and its information should be open by default.

Moreover, some ministers received specific instructions on the issue. For example, Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s letter calls on him to “accelerate and expand open data initiatives and make government data available digitally, so that Canadians can easily access and use it”, while Minister of Innovation, Science and Development Navdeep Bains is tasked with improving “the quality of publicly available data in Canada.”

An “open by default” standard is the right approach to open data and is likely to lead to a significant expansion of the government information readily available to the public. Yet if success is measured primarily by the number of accessible data sets, the effort will have failed. The open data commitment must also address the ability of Canadians to have the connectivity necessary to access the information, the legal rights to use it, and the power to obtain government information of their choosing beyond large data sets.

The issue of connectivity is directly linked to the need for universal, affordable broadband services. Canada’s goals for broadband access has been a confusing mix of policy pronouncement and regulator targets. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission 2015-2016 Priorities and Planning Report target for broadband access is 5 megabits per second download for 100 per cent of the population by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the current government’s target will take many more years to complete (the target is 280,000 Canadians with new or faster access by March 2019) and it does not envision universal access.

Given the state of Canadian broadband, there is a desperate need for new thinking on affordable broadband access that goes beyond funding announcements that can take years to implement. Indeed, if the commitment to open by default for government information means open to all, then the lack of affordable connectivity for many Canadians must be addressed.

Once Canadians can access government data, they must also have the legal right to use it in whatever manner they see fit. Canada still retains “crown copyright”, which reflects a centuries-old perspective that the government ought to control the public’s ability to use official documents.  Today crown copyright extends for fifty years from creation and it requires anyone who wants to use or republish a government report, parliamentary hearing, or other work to first seek permission.

The Conservative government introduced a non-commercial licence for government information to allow for some usage without the need for further permission. That approach has its limitations, however, including the prospect of licensing changes and restrictions on commercial usage. The far better approach would be for government to get out of the copyright ownership business altogether, by repealing crown copyright.

Finally, open data should mean more than just data sets as there must also be sufficient resources to allow for a robust access to information system. The Information Commissioner of Canada has repeatedly warned that inadequate financing has made it virtually impossible to meet demand and respond to complaints.  Regular users of the access to information system invariably encounter long delays, aggressive use of exceptions to redact important information, significant costs, and inconsistent implementation of technology to provide more efficient and cost-effective service.

In short, the access to information system is broken. An open government plan that only addresses the information that government wants to make available, rather than all of the information to which the public is entitled, is not an open plan. Open by default is the right place to start and Canadians will be watching intently to see how far the policy extends.


  1. Well said. Not only are the number of open datasets problematic, many are summarized and over sanitized to the point of little value. The timeliness of the data is also an issue. I work with the volunteer group Data for Good Ottawa and we recently completed a project where better,timely access to data (provincial and federal) would have been game-changing.

    keep up the good work.

  2. Devil's Advocate says:

    Repealing crown copyright would be constructive. Even in the U.S., everything the government creates is (at least, technically) exempt from copyright, and considered Public Domain.

    Government is supposed to be working FOR the People, therefore everything they document in our name should belong to the People.

  3. sane comments today.
    kindly remember EVERYTHING you say can+will be held agaist you. (ever had a girl-friend? More of the same.)

    open data will also open targets.
    grant apps for industrial esp.
    spurious copy-right takedowns

    mickysoft’s “industrail process secrets’

    On the whole, a good idea.
    can we investigate the ‘income tax’ investigations?


  4. Just to add to Michael’s excellent contribution, the Throne Speech also stated that “public input will be sought and considered.” Is ‘sought” to be interpreted as an open invitation to the public to submit input, or is it meant to say “we’ll let you know when and if we want your input.”?

    If the former, then my experience so far in submitting feedback has been discouraging to say the least.
    In recent weeks I have tried several times — by email, posted letter, and phone — to submit my “public input” to the office staff of the PM and Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland.

    On phone calls I have been greeted with endless unanswered ringing (because the phone number for the PM in the parliamentary directory has not been updated), voice messages about “how busy we are”, requests to leave a “detailed message” and someone will get back to you (which of course they never do). To my October 26, 2015 open letter to PM Trudeau designate – submitted by email and Canada Post – not even an acknowledgement of receipt. And two follow-up inquiries have also been completely ignored.

    So I am left to wonder, do the voices of ordinary Canadians even count? Are some voices more equal than others? Or is this just an ongoing deficit of Canadian democracy that will remain unaddressed even in a “real change” Trudeau government?

    • Devil's Advocate says:

      What you’re describing is the way everything is constructed now. You get no acknowledgement or meaningful response, and you’re not given any avenues to connect with anyone of any authority or relevant knowledge.

      Everything is handled by either automation or a “front line” of subordinates who are not privy to the details you might be needing, and don’t care to be any benefit to you. All the “important” people are protected by a wall of anonymity and guarded contact info.

  5. Excellent points. I would like to emphasize that ‘open by default’ should include open in an available standard industry machine readable form. Open does not mean available through stacks of hard copy.

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