How Canada can take the lead on open government

Posted on March 29, 2016 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Columnists
March 28, 2016.   Wayne Wouters and Deb Matthews

Some 70 countries around the world are officially part of the Open Government Partnership. Yet, for all the effort and investment, many people still think the movement is about making data and information more available. That’s only half the picture.

Open Government is also about “open dialogue” – that is, changing how decisions are made by involving citizens and outside experts more fully in the policy process.

In Canada, Open Government programs are being rolled out by all three orders of government, and many include open dialogue initiatives. But there are still people inside and outside government who resist this. They worry that open dialogue will quickly degenerate into a free-for-all that paralyses decision-makers or saddles governments with bad policies.

Governments and citizens alike need to get beyond these views. We need to take a critical, hard look at open dialogue. When we do, the evidence is clear that well-designed and well-executed processes raise few risks and can deliver big benefits.

A project called “Vibrant Communities” is a timely example. Fifty-five cities across the country are now part of this initiative, which uses dialogue to develop promising local solutions to poverty.

Poverty can have many causes, including lack of education, cultural or gender barriers, illness, lack of opportunity, technological change, economic shock, and more. Which causes are actually at work, however, differs from community to community.

Vibrant Communities sorts this out through an open dialogue process that taps residents’ knowledge of their community to “map” the risk factors and assets in it. Participants then use this knowledge to develop a poverty-reduction plan tailored to their community’s needs.

Making policies and programs more responsive to local needs is just one way open dialogue leads to better government. Here are some others:

– Using open dialogue to involve the public in decision-making is enhancing transparency, accountability and responsiveness.

– Open dialogue is essential for collaboration. It allows divergent groups to work together to solve complex issues, such as poverty or innovation.

– Open dialogue brings a mix of voices to the interpretation of complex data sets to ensure that evidence-based decision-making is balanced.

– Combining open dialogue with online tools can make democratic participation more inclusive and meaningful.

But if the benefits of open dialogue are clear, much of the work in the Open Government movement remains narrowly focused on making data available. That may be about to change and Canadian governments are at the forefront, helping to push Open Dialogue into the spotlight.

The British Columbia government has been a leader in the use of online tools. Its recent Liquor Policy Review attracted more than 75,000 British Columbians to its website. Thousands more provided comments through an online blog, email and social media.

In 2013, the federal public service launched Blueprint 2020, a national engagement process that invited public servants, academics and others to provide their views on how best to prepare the Public Service of Canada for the future. Blueprint 2020 was ground-breaking in its use of social media and for the huge response it received.

The province of Ontario is using open dialogue in five projects with the goal of creating a new approach to public engagement that will be more open and transparent.

Many other innovative open dialogue initiatives are underway across the country. The challenges and opportunities they pose will be the focus of the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum, a national conference in Ottawa at the end of March in which government leaders will join national and international experts to discuss ways to advance open dialogue.

Will Canadian governments be leaders or followers on open dialogue? The event could be decisive in answering this question – and a turning point for Open Government, both in Canada and abroad.

Wayne Wouters is former Clerk of the Privy Council; Deb Matthews is Deputy Premier of Ontario.

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One Response to “How Canada can take the lead on open government”

  1. FYI

    the problem the Liberal government is trying to solve is how to concentrate political power in fewer and fewer hands


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