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Wynne launches Open Government Team:

A response from the Chair

Yesterday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne launched the Open Government Engagement Team-a nine-member panel of experts that will advise her government on how it can become “the most open and transparent government in the country.”

As the Team’s Chair, I can say that we have our work cut out for us-and the timelines are tight. We will deliver our final report to the Minister of Government Services, John Milloy, in late February. So, what is Open Government and what, exactly, has our Team been asked to do about it?

The phrase “Open Government” may conjure up images of the not-so-open sort: anonymous sources, leaked documents, and whispers in corridors. Is Open Government about putting an end to this kind of secrecy?

Well…not exactly. While our mandate calls for recommendations on how to make information more accessible-so-called “Open Information”-this is one of three streams that make up Open Government.

Open Data is a second stream. Data is the raw material from which knowledge is constructed. Thus, data collected on traffic patterns might be used to provide information on, say, which intersections are busiest, which, in turn, might yield insights into how best to manage traffic flows.

If this sounds a lot less sexy than ending secrecy, think again. Open Data is a new movement whereby governments around the world are making their vast data holdings available to the public to use in the development of new knowledge products.

Google Maps is an example. When you ask for the quickest route from A to B, it draws on a massive geographic database to create the map. But the database belongs to governments; without access to it the Google App would be useless.

Open Data is already leading to some very big business. In the US alone, services that use “location-based data” are now a $75 billion industry that employs some 500,000 people. This is only one of a whole range of promising possibilities.

Government data holdings range across every area of human interest, from health and finance to labour markets, culture and the environment. These datasets are to the knowledge economy what natural resources were to the industrial economy. Our Team will advise the government on how and where to make more of them public.

Finally, the third stream of Open Government is Open Dialogue. Premier Wynne’s government recognizes that how our society communicates and interacts is changing profoundly. Governments need to catch up. They must learn to engage the public in new ways-especially through social media.

Here the government has done something both remarkable and ambitious. It has asked our Team to put 60% of its effort into Open Dialogue, with the remaining 40% shared equally between Open Data and Open Information.

As far as I know, this is a first. Canada is a signatory to the Open Government Partnership, a worldwide movement of some 60 countries that have joined together to improve governance through principles such as transparency, openness and public engagement. However, most of this work focuses on Open Data, with Open Information a distant second. Open Dialogue barely registers. Why?

Frankly, progress on Open Data tends to be the easiest. Datasets can often be made available without challenging the command-and-control culture of traditional government. Open Information is more difficult because it limits secrecy, but a regime is already in place-“freedom of information”-that governments can build on. This can be challenging, but at least it is a known commodity.

Open Dialogue is a big step in a new direction. It calls on governments to revisit and rethink some basic assumptions about democracy. To some, that will seem risky-even dangerous. Those, like me, who believe such change is not only desirable, but necessary, should welcome Wynne’s emphasis on Open Dialogue. It offers us a very significant opportunity to discuss how and why governments need to go down this path and, hopefully, to move the yardsticks in some significant way.

In sum, Open Government is a river fed by three streams: Open Dialogue, Open Information and Open Data. In the end, the Engagement Team’s mandate is really about creating the kind of culture-change within government that will draw on all three streams to promote greater collaboration, openness and transparency.

As the 60 countries in the Open Government Partnership attest, this is not a partisan or ideological program. Open Government is the way of the future-it is the kind of government we need for a digital world. In our effort to get it right, our Team will be engaging experts and citizens from across the province to hear their views on how best to make this work.

At the same time, I plan to write a weekly column in this space under the title Political Voice(s) to tell readers about the issues, arguments and options our Team is considering, as the work progresses.

I invite readers to consider the issues along with us and to provide comments on what advice they think we should give to the Government of Ontario to help make it the most open and transparent government in the country.

I look forward to the chance to engage.

Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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