Jim Bronskill – April 2, 2012
Just two weeks before Canada unfurls its plan for open government at a major international meeting in Brazil, the federal blueprint remains largely a mystery.
Delegates from 53 countries, including Canada, will gather in Brasilia on April 17-18 for the annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership.Participating countries will deliver action plans that spell out commitments on making government more open and accountable, and agree to independent review of their progress.
Canada says its plan will focus on improving public services, increasing public integrity and more effectively managing public resources — but has offered no details.
In recent years the federal government has repackaged information on everything from dairy exports to labour force statistics, making it available through an online portal. It has also published departmental data on expenses, contracts and completed Access to Information requests.
Duff Conacher, a board member of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch, isn't impressed.
The Harper government has "talked a lot while doing little to make the federal government actually more open and transparent," said Conacher. "The Conservatives have, since last spring, tried to spin their limited open data initiatives as an actual open government plan."
As a requirement of attaining full membership in the Open Government Partnership, Canada undertook consultations to help craft the action plan that Treasury Board President Tony Clement will deliver in Brazil.
The consultation included online feedback from 260 Canadians, a Twitter town hall in December that reaped more than 550 tweets, and a meeting with federal, provincial and territorial clerks of legislative assemblies and cabinet secretaries in January.
A recently released federal report on the consultations says participants told government to:
- make information and data easier to find on government websites and through centralized portals;
- promote the availability of open data through better communications and marketing;
- improve consultation tools and websites through the use of plain language and social media;
- ensure that Canadians know that consultations are taking place and demonstrate that something is being done with the results;
- be more open with Canadians by improving policies and rules so that government data and information is open by default.
The data sets that drew the most interest from participants involved demographics, public finance and expenditure, health and safety, nature and environment, and economics and industry.
"Canada could lead a worldwide information revolution by opening scientific and statistical data to the public, and providing a forum for others to do the same," said one respondent.
Conacher says the consultation was too limited and failed to meet the minimum standards outlined by the Open Government Partnership. The government did not adequately promote the exercise and has not held enough face-to-face meetings to properly gauge the views of Canadians, he said.
The online feedback exercise took place Dec. 6 through Jan. 16, "one of the worst time periods for public consultation given the busy holiday period," said Conacher.
In late February, Clement chaired the first meeting of an advisory panel on open government composed of representatives from civil society organizations, business and the academic sphere.
The consultation report says the panel members echoed the messages of Canadians.
"There is a need for user and community engagement to move our initiatives forward. This leads to better data, information and services for all," the report says.
"Particular emphasis was placed on advancing the delivery of open data, modernizing Access to Information, and licensing of open data and information."
Democracy Watch says the coming federal action plan must include stronger rules and enforcement in a host of areas including consultation exercises, government transparency, ethics, anti-corruption measures, lobbying oversight, whistleblower protection and waste prevention.