Open government talk buzzes across Canada

Open government discussions are buzzing across Canada, with two events last weekend – the Open City Workshop hosted by the City of Edmonton and the Taking Stock of Tech conference at the University of Ottawa – both featuring panel discussions on the topic.  

At the Open City Workshop, a day-long event in Edmonton, a four-member panel discussed everything from what government-as-a-platform means to the challenges of moving towards open government to the potential for creating one massive IT department via a Muniforge.

The first area of concern is security and privacy, said David Eaves, negotiation and strategy consultant, expert in public policy and open systems and an advisor to the mayor of the City of Vancouver. “One thing I am very concerned about is that we are sharing data that doesn’t violate people’s privacy,” he said.

The second challenge is culture, said Eaves. Governments see themselves as delivering a service and needing to control the message, but it is not about control, he said. “It’s about influence, and the more you share, the more influence you have,” he said.

The third and “single biggest challenge” around open government are legal departments that say “you can’t do this,” said Eaves. License agreements have to say “please use this and do something with it,” but “getting lawyers on board to figure out how to do this is a challenge.”

Eaves referred to Vancouver’s legal board as a good example of one that created “a fairly inviting license.” In May 2009, Vancouver made headlines as the first municipality in Canada to embrace the open city concept by passing a motion that supports open data, open standards and open source.

“The whole reason we have governments is to co-ordinate,” said Eaves, in response to a panel question on what government-as-a-platform means. This is what government is about and rather than get “caught up in the newness of it,” the focus should be on figuring out the way to extend this to the virtual realm, he said. “This is about empowering citizens to make the city their own,” he said.

Eaves promoted the development of a “MuniForge,” based on the SourceForge model, as a means for municipalities in Canada and around the world to share their IT resources. In Canada, “each city has their own IT department and (is) coding up what is essentially the same software … cities have some specific needs, but by and large, the infrastructure is the same,” he said.

Open sourcing software and putting it up on a platform “would suddenly transform the IT employees that are working at smaller cities into one (gigantic) IT department,” he said.

(For an in-depth look at the Muniforge concept, read Eaves’ article, “MuniForge: Creating municipalities that work like the Web,” originally published in the Municipal Information Systems Association’s Municipal Interface journal and now available on his blog

Mark Kuznicki, an expert in social technology and open government who developed the ChangeCamp model and acted as an advisor to the City of Toronto on the launch of in November 2009, agreed with Eaves’ concerns.

But another challenge to keep in mind is “how you think about service delivery” because “how you design an open system is different than an industrial process,” he said. We are “in the midst of a transition from an industrial hierarchical model … into something that resembles a network,” he said.

Government-as-a-platform is about “government recognizing itself as an important node in a network, but not an exclusive monopoly on the role of creating public good,” said Kuznicki. There are a lot of things “we can do outside government to create public goods through co-creation.”

The potential for real cost savings is huge, said Kuznicki. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on technology and not always effectively,” he said. Kuznicki said “(you) can’t put a price tag on the relationship between government and citizens.”

Not only may government not want to build an iPhone app for every municipal service that exists, “it actually can’t do that,” said Kuznicki. “There is not enough money to do everything people expect,” which is a very strong incentive for government to provide possibilities for others to innovate on top of, he said.

The panelists also discussed the potential for a government app store. “If cities create the platform, the app store will be developed,” said Kuznicki. “We are barely in the adoption of open data as a program within cities, but as it continues and as different cities start to think about harmonizing data sets, you will see more APIs,” he said.

While the community may not know where to find city information, the city needs to understand its citizens, said Nicholas Charney, a Canadian federal public servant based in Ottawa who “blogs unofficially on public service renewal” and government 2.0.

By understanding what citizens want, government can “meet your needs rather than get something out of the door to meet a timeline,” he said. But “we might need help on how to organize and (understand) what is a priority to you,” he said.

“The single largest benefit for government-as-a-platform is to change the relationship between government and people,” said Charney. Confidence can be built by moving to this platform, he said, because at the moment, “I don’t know what you need.”

Challenges, from a municipal clerk’s perspective, are time, resources and the ability to communicate what’s available and what’s needed. “I don’t think we know what we need,” said Alayne Sinclair, city clerk for the City of Edmonton.

An app that would provide a heads-up on what issues are going to be discussed at city council meetings would be helpful, she said, as would an app that could merge the various calendars. “There are a lot of opportunities for this,” she said.

Panel moderator Walter Schwabe, CEO of social media engagement firm FusedLogic Inc., summarized his take at the end of the discussion. “In order to support open government, a key thing mentioned was to do it ourselves,” he said. Schwabe highlighted, a network of local groups, as “a brilliant example of do-it-ourselves.”

Chris Moore, CIO of the City of Edmonton, didn’t participate in the panel discussion, but he did provide his perspective on the real and perceived risks of open government in an interview with ComputerWorld Canada.

Moore said the top three questions he gets asked on the topic of open government are about risk, privacy and sustainability. “For me, they are not obstacles, because I think you can manage them,” he said. Risks related to legal issues and control are also manageable “as long as there are people in the discussion,” he said.

Some people don’t include others in the discussion to guarantee or control the outcome, he said. “We are trying to do things here in more of an engaging way. It’s more organic and richer because more people are involved,” he said.

A Town Hall session scheduled to take place in Edmonton early this summer will provide an opportunity for people to clearly articulate the opportunities and risks of the open ecosystem, said Moore. Unions may have concerns, for example, about taking work away from employees by allowing the public sector to create applications, he said.

Five open data initiatives were announced by Moore at the workshop. In his opening remarks, Moore addressed the top three questions. The data that the city is sharing is information that is already public available, he said. “We need to keep what is private, private,” he said.

For a wrap-up of the panel discussion hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Center for Law, Technology and Society, read Grant Buckler’s story, “More open government could save lives: panel.”

Background stories on open initiatives in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver: “Edmonton takes five steps towards open govt,” “Toronto starts thinking like the Web,” “Vancouver becomes role model for open source in government.”  

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.

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