Open government carries the promise of more effective, accountable government. To capitalize on this potential, governments like Canada’s have made commitments to becoming open by default. Canada has launched a pilot to implement its vision, providing access to working documents to inspire innovation and create exponential benefits for citizens.
The Government of Canada has made ambitious commitments to being open by default. Government and its information should be available its citizens, except in select cases when there might be a detrimental impact on privacy or security. In an effort to make the Government of Canada truly open by default, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) has partnered with other federal departments to provide access to working documents and data through a pilot portal (http://pilot.open.canada.ca/open-by-default-pilot). The draft documents include a diverse selection of reports, field notes, project plans, meeting minutes and more. The portal represents an important step in Canada’s ongoing effort to become more transparent and strengthen collaboration with the public. TBS developed the Open by Default pilot project to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the federal government’s works in progress.
For the first time, the federal government has provided access to some of the raw materials used in government decision making. The rationale behind this experiment in radical transparency is to capitalize on the opportunity to shine fresh light on what government does and create greater scope for citizens and stakeholders to engage and collaborate with their government. The main objective of the initiative is to implement our commitment to being open by default.
The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has repeatedly made commitments to openness and transparency, stressing the importance of openness by design. The Open by Default pilot takes this vision a step further; equipping citizens to observe government processes from their inception is one way to better understand how the Government of Canada works for its people. This experiment also encourages public servants to be open by default from the get-go, never forgetting the people they serve. As such, the beneficiaries are not only open government stakeholders, but all individuals and groups, inside and outside of government, that deal with public policy in Canada.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Government of Canada has been very intentional in releasing data. With roughly 120,000 open data sets from about 60 federal departments, Canada was recently ranked 2nd globally in the Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer. However, this data is only released once it is refined and prepared, rather than when it is created. The new Open by Default portal offers a platform to provide access to working documents as they are being conceived.
As such, the new portal represents a new experiment in government transparency. Of note, the new portal effectively automates the process of providing public access to non-sensitive federal information and data, in a timely manner. In so doing, it encourages public engagement, moving from a passive engagement model to a proactive, community-driven one. It also represents user-centric design thinking thanks to the use of an agile procurement process to maximize the usability and findability of content provided through the portal.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Open by Default Portal is a pilot project; it includes works in progress that have not necessarily been created or formatted for release. Still a beta site, it is housed within Canada’s Open Government website (Open.Canada.ca). It presents draft documents from four federal departments. The presentation of the current content has gone through several iterative improvements. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has also leveraged a new procurement mechanism to capture innovations to enhance the usability and findability of content on the portal. The new pilot portal is housed with the Open Government website, which was launched in 2012 as a single purpose data portal.
The team spread the initiative to departments by seeking participation in the pilot phase; more departments have since sought to join the pilot having observed successes to date. The pilot will be evaluated on an ongoing basis, including from the citizen perspective, once the initial pilot phase concludes.
Collaborations & Partnerships
This was an interdepartmental, collaboration of departments that aligned around shared commitments of transparency. Several departments revealed significant dedication to troubleshooting and implementing solutions. They uploaded numerous documents to enable the pilot, which helped address back-end user concerns and needs. Their insight regarding converging and diverging atmospheres in government helped conceptualize the portal for broad application while beginning on a relatively small scale.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
During the pilot’s problem definition phase, we considered user needs, via open government consultations and requests for government information and data. The innovation of this project is most clearly apparent in its conceptualization, in its implementation, and the agility with which the portal was launched and iterated. The improvements occurred through a procurement process meant to further encourage SMEs to engage with government procurement and diversify our approaches to problem solving.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The Open by Default Portal has elicited a fair degree of interest from the public. There have been a significant number of visits to the site, comments on the documents, and downloads of the Call for Proposals (CFP) for the usability challenge. The pilot is already well on its way to bringing about a more user-centric design process as the CFP included various criteria on this front and the winning bidder is required to deliver a user-focused, innovative digital solution. We anticipate the overall impact of the pilot to include greater levels of public engagement, more advanced knowledge around how to practice Open by Default within the Government of Canada, and solutions for pressing concerns around sharing working documents, including the provision of work in both Official Languages and fully accessible material.
Challenges and Failures
One of the biggest challenges was balancing a transparent government with accessibility needs and official language requirements. While these are not mutually exclusive, there was also no legal precedent to follow that lent well to opening draft documents by default. This meant we had to be our own way-finders in order for the project to proceed nimbly.
Furthermore, concerns were raised about whether or not government was ready for such a culture shift. This challenge is on-going, however the Open by Default pilot sets a precedent for government to more effectively engage with citizens, which in turn informs how government must realign itself to respond accordingly. We are confident that continued investment in open government will continue to drive this cultural shift.
Conditions for Success
In the case of this pilot, crucial elements included commitment to open government, vision for deepening our leadership, alignment of appropriate resources and skills, and a high degree of commitment to making the pilot a success against all odds.
We designed the pilot project to be scalable from the outset, with the first iteration of agile procurement for the Open by Default portal serving as proof of concept for subsequent iterations. Currently, we are developing project plans for the second and third challenges, which will target further enhancements to the portal in areas that will support better accessibility by all Canadians. All code powering the pilot and Open.Canada.ca is available for reuse via GitHub.
Scaling and iterating can be powerful tools for driving systems change. One of the crucial strengths of the Open by Default pilot was diving in without necessarily having all the answers from the beginning. This approach allowed for rapid, iterative progress, but also revealed a plethora of interim lessons learned, including the need for sustained leadership from senior management among all participating departments, clear policy guidance and operational instructions to reduce risk aversion.
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
7 February 2017