Open Government in Canada: Ambitious plan yet to be implemented

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Canada`s Action Plan on Open Government
Canada`s Action Plan on Open Government 

Canada released its latest open government action plan last month after coming up with the strongest Open Data Charter commitments among the G7 (previously G8) member states. The plan has dozens of ambitious goals under three main pillars: open data, open information and open dialogue. Sunlight took a closer look at the plan and analyzed the commitments to provide the international community with some food for thought, and the Canadian government with a few recommendations for the improvement and implementation of the plan.

“No wrong door” approach

The first, rather bold commitment is to facilitate a “no wrong door” approach to open data, AKA to harmonize and integrate the diverse range of open data activities happening at all levels of government in Canada, let it be federal, provincial, territorial or municipal. In most countries, including the US, data is usually owned by different agencies, bureaus and jurisdictions — a major hurdle for accessing, analyzing and comparing government information. The plan promises to create an open data steering committee, with representatives from all levels of government, aiming to establish and facilitate common principles, licences, standards, and to develop a federated open data search service. We encourage the Canadian government to work closely with civil society on establishing new principles and licences, and find CSO partners for the implementation of each specific commitment. There’s a vast amount of standards and guidance created by the global transparency community, and civil society (both within and outside Canada) is eager to collaborate with championing governments to make the best use of their resources and expertise.

Open Government 2.0: Improving digital literacy

The Canadian plan is also aiming to take open government to the next level by developing tools and training resources to improve the digital literacy of Canadian citizens, a potentially powerful way to democratize the hierarchy of information flow in a technology-enabled century. (The UK has just launched a program for state-run schools to start teaching 5-year-old kids some basic coding skills, while recent research found that Britain needs 745,000 additional workers with digital competencies to continue growing the country’s economy over the next four years.) We are excited to see how this specific commitment gets implemented, but a recent funding cut for a public internet access program raises concerns about the availability of sufficient resources for such an initiative.

Open data for accountability

We applaud that the plan also aims to create more transparency around how Canadian tax dollars are being spent, through releasing data on all contracts over a certain threshold via a centralized, machine-readable database, by piloting the Open Contracting Data Standard, launching a new online service to review and visualize federal spending broken down by departments, and through introducing new legislation on extractive entities to implement mandatory reporting standards. To further improve the accountability of Canadian decision-makers, it would be also great to see attempts to fix the loopholes of the Canadian lobbying registry and the release of more data on political donations.

Commercialization of open data

The Canadian government promises to invest 3 million Canadian dollars (US$2.62 million) over three years to establish a new institute called the Open Data Exchange (ODX). ODX will “work with governments, the private sector, civil society, and academia to help realize the full potential of open data for the economic and social benefit”, and will do so by developing new tools and applications that access and manipulate government data, through establishing a national marketplace with an online community and incubating new data-driven companies. While the broader narrative does address the social impact of opening up government information, specific commitments — and especially the allocation of financial resources — seem to put more emphasis on economic benefits. And though ODX might not be the best positioned to conduct such research, we encourage the Canadian government to allocate further resources to explore other ways in which government openness and innovation can impact the life of Canadian citizens – beyond economic growth.

Freedom of information regime

The Canadian action plan also promises to improve the implementation of Canada’s existing Access to Information (ATI) system (equivalent to the U.S. FOI regime), through facilitating faster responses to FOI requests and developing a government-wide records management solution. However, immediately after the release of the plan, the government came under strong criticism for failing to provide enough resources to fix a “broken” ATI system, which seems especially problematic as “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”, and the “inadequate financing” of the country’s Information Commissioner has made it virtually impossible to respond to complaints.

The proactive release of public records is a great way to save costs, and data on FOI requests might help inform the prioritization of releasing “high-value” datasets (e.g. data on company’s beneficial ownership). However, a robust transparency regime should also grant people the rights to target specific closely-held information, therefore we encourage the Canadian government to allocate more resources and make necessary legislative changes to improve the country’s Access to Information act and services.