Why Canada should open source the government

Canada’s government is not only in a good position to “open source” the delivery of services through technology – it’s already doing it, according to a public policy entrepreneur.

Speaking at a lecture series hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) on Thursday night, Vancouver-based David Eaves urged government organizations to embrace online tools and social media as a way to tap into the wisdom of the crowds and encourage self-organization at the citizen level. Eaves, who has consulted with the City of Vancouver’s mayor and others on opening up government data to the public, argued the collective wisdom of everyday people on issues like health, crime and the environment is much larger than those who actually work in the public service.

A handful of Canadian municipalities, including Toronto and Vancouver, are studying how the public is using data to create their own transit maps, event listings and other applications. This notion of “open government” is intended to create a more interactive relationship between the public sector and citizens.

“This is already happening,” said Eaves, pointing to emergency services like 911. The government relies on the public to proactively tell them where to deploy ambulances based on alerts by phone. “The government doesn’t have someone standing at the corner of Yonge and Bloor (in Toronto) who watches to see when there’s an accident. We crowdsourced the problem because we couldn’t afford another solution.”

In many cases, however, Eaves said the government tends to design online services in such a way that they’re impossible to find, difficult to use and discouraging as a delivery channel. Part of the problem is how the government benchmarks itself, he said, citing consulting firm Accenture’s global ranking of e-government effectiveness. “That’s like saying, ‘Let’s grab all the laggards and see who’s faster with their walker than the other guy.’”

Instead, Eaves suggested governments should see their true peer group as the most popular services on the Internet, including Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon.com. The online bookseller, for example, will frequently return search results for a book with recommendations of other titles the visitor might want to read. Governments could steal from this playbook by personalizing service delivery. If a 30-year-old man goes to a government Web site to apply for a service, the system could point out other potential services for which he would be eligible. Eaves acknowledged the government is heading in this direction with portals such as CanadaBenefits.gc.ca, but is not always designing them in such a way that they will be successful.

Michael Dila, chief strategist at OCAD’s sLab, said the idea of “open sourcing” political activity harkens back to philosopher Thomas Hobbs, who predicted that once societies did away with the idea of the divine right of kings to rule, the state would be powered by a machine run by the humans. “So maybe it’s not so strange after all,” he said.

Despite what he described as positive signs with projects like the federal GCpedia wiki and the GCConnex social networking platform, Eaves lambasted governments organizations that continue to prohibit or limit the use of online tools by employees. “This is probably the first time in history where a group of people are being told, ‘Don’t be too efficient,’” he said. “There are a lot of people working incredibly hard with one half of their brain tied behind their back.”

Eaves has been sharing his vision of open government for several years now, including presentations to several groups of public sector CIOs. The reception has been mixed depending on the demographics, he admitted, but not in the obvious ways.

“I’ve had really good response from the DMs (deputy ministers) and ADMs (assistant deputy ministers),” he said. “Where I’ve found real resistance is the Gen X people at the director general level who are about to become an ADM. They’re like, ‘I’m finally about to have some power and you’re telling me you want to put that control in the hands of the people? No way.’”


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Shane Schick
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