Do you trust the federal government to make good decisions? Are you happy with the directions being taken by provincial or local politicians? I’m not, and I’m not alone. According to the Conference Board of Canada (October 2008), nearly 45% of eligible Canadians don’t bother to vote and only 41% of Canadians have a high level of trust in Parliament (compared to 70% in Norway and 22% in Japan). There has to be a better way to run this country or this city than by placing blind trust in a small group of politicians and public employees.
As a result, I’ve been observing with considerable interest the development of open government projects in both Canada and the United States. “Techies” and “computer geeks” appear to be taking the lead in increasing transparency and public involvement.
What is Open Government?
Programmers have witnessed the development of open source software. Volunteers have been instrumental in developing Mozilla and LibraryThing and a huge range of other software programs, and they’re making them freely available for people to use.
Now, they’re urging governments to make their data openly available (while still respecting privacy and security) so that volunteers can work with the data and develop software programs that will benefit the public. American cities have taken the lead in this area, but Vancouver, Toronto, Nanaimo and Calgary are joining in (The Rise of the Open City: The Current State of Affairs).
David Eaves provides a useful overview of the evolution of the open city concept, and he points out that 911 is a prime example of public involvement in local government. We don’t have civic employees stationed on every block to report on accidents or fires or other emergencies. We rely on citizens to phone them in.
What Are the Possible Benefits?
Opening up access to government databases could work in a similar way. The Saskatoon Public Library has a really outdated online search and reservation system – it would be awesome if a local techie could access the data and improve the system – for free. Wouldn’t it be great if local heritage information was available online so that when I was walking down the street and saw an interesting building, I could find out its history on my cell phone? Other cities have compiled community information so that you can find out about missing pets, traffic jams, robberies, and restaurants in your neighbourhood all from one handy website.
And, although we are living in an increasingly wired society, open government projects can also benefit citizens who aren’t using the internet by providing municipalities with better information or more effective tools.
What Are the Risks?
There are all sorts of risks in open government projects. How do you respect the privacy of public citizens? How do you overcome resistance from government employees who are nervous about sharing unedited information or who feel that they have lost their sense of purpose because they are being asked to share responsibility for serving the public interest.
However, my primary concern is that the open government projects all appear to be driven by computer geeks. This is a restricted group of people who are focussed on developing software applications but may not have spent sufficient time understanding the community and its problems and needs.
What is the Problem?
Open government projects can only be successful if they involve a wide range of people – from politicians and government employees to academics and researchers and computer experts to members of the general public. As Seth Godin says, “The difficult conversation about the problem is far more useful than the endless effort on solutions. . . . The more clarity you can get about what a successful solution looks like, the more likely you will be to have a delighted customer when you're done.”
Open Government in Saskatoon?
I have found David Eaves’ blog and O’Reilly Radar to be useful sources of information, and the GTEC blog provides interesting information about social media and open government projects at the federal level.
I would be interested in being directed to additional sources of information or in hearing from other people in Saskatoon or Saskatchewan who are interested in initiating open government projects.