Following are my comments on Canada's draft new action plan on open government 2016 - 2018
Canada’s Draft New Plan on Open Government 2016-2018
Individual Comments by Dr. Heather Morrison
are in order to Canada’s government for global leadership, commitment, and
swift moves by our new government to action, notably in the areas of commitment
to open access and open data to both academic and government information, commitment
to creation of a Chief Science Officer position, restoring the mandatory long
form census, forthcoming free and more timely access to Statistics Canada data,
and initiating electoral reform (to mention a few moves!). Following are my
comments as an expert in the area of information policy, notably open access,
intended to help strengthen a solid, ambitious but realistic draft plan. In the
spirit of openness and transparency, note that I am a professor at the
University of Ottawa’s bilingual School of Information Studies and I see career
opportunities for our graduates and research opportunities for me arising from
this plan and some of my suggestions.
Reconsider centralization or the “one-stop” approach. Sometimes
this is a good idea (one stop search for grants and contributions, single point
of access to all geospatial data). However, centralization can also be a
bottleneck and even a muzzling device. Decentralization with website and open
data development in the hands of departmental experts who understand the
information they are working with and how people will want to use it is
probably in many instances the most effective means of providing open
government information and data. I want my weather information directly from
Environment Canada and my tax data directly from Canada Revenue Agency, not
indirectly from a central service where staff are not likely to be experts in
Consider expanding information services to include reference
service (professional service by intermediaries with understanding of
information seeking behavior as well as government information), both through
government and indirectly through libraries of all types (through advocacy for
this role with key partners). This has the potential to provide better service
and sometimes reduce cost. For example, in the area of Access to Information, overly
broad requests may reflect lack of knowledge of the specific documents or data
most likely to address a need. Direct communication with requestors may be the
best means to hone requests.
Beware what I characterize as a blind spot of completely
unrestricted re-use which could lead to intended consequences (for example effectiveprivatization
of currently free public services). Impose reasonable expectations of behaviour
by re-users that is in the public interest, and encourage development along
these lines at the global level.
Remember the vulnerable. Sometimes the best approach to open
government is in-person offices. Open data and data visualization are a boon
for those of who can see but a challenge for the visually disabled. Proactively
address this challenge rather than waiting for complaints. Consider and consult
First Nations peoples before releasing data about resources on their lands or lands
that they depend on that could be exploited to their detriment.
Build in protection against the inevitable temptations of power
and the understandable human tendency to want to look good. Access to
Information – an effective means to demand information that the government does
not choose to make open – will always be needed for really open government. I also
recommend an arms-length approach to developing data visualization services,
because it is easy to develop services that help people to see what we want
them to see; our truth rather than the truth.
Considerable research is needed on how to go about meaningfully
engaging a whole population in open dialogue and policy-making. This particular
potential of open government will take an extended period of time for full
development. This should be factored into assessment of progress.
Immediately apply principles and best practices of open dialogue
and policy-making in trade treaty negotiations, beginning with the Trans
Expand on corporate accountability through a review of legislation
on corporations and consultations with the private sector, academics and other
stakeholders to understand barriers to triple bottom line accounting (finance,
people and environment) and propose solutions.
comments are presented below in two sections, Overarching comments and specific
comments on the draft plan.
centralize or not to centralize?
draft plan refers in several places to centralization (single portal, one-stop etc.).
I recommend re-thinking of the benefits of centralization versus
decentralization. Sometimes, centralization can result in streamlining of
access for the citizen; commitment 11, one-stop access to data on grants and
contributions is a good example of this.
However, centralization can also be a bottleneck or even a muzzling
device. Weather information is both interesting and important to the public. To
have the best information on whether a potentially dangerous storm is headed in
my direction, I look to the experts at Environment Canada to post what they
know as soon as they possibly can. Sending information to a central service
would simply create delays and likely impede good decision-making by Canadians.
Governments create different departments for good reasons. The type of
information provided and how it is best structured to be understood by the
public will vary with the type of information. When it’s time to reconcile my
taxes I want a website that is under the control of the best experts in
taxation and web development for this type of information. I note below
particular sections of the plan where I see centralization as beneficial or
information literacy services are needed (directly through government and
indirectly through libraries) and would reduce in some cases reduce the
a professor in the area of information studies, former practicing professional
librarian and researcher in the areas of open access, open government, and
access to information, I have had many discussions with students, experts, and
government staffers who provide services such as responding to ATI requests about
the challenges and opportunities. In my professional opinion, the Government of
Canada could provide better service, sometimes at lower cost through a kind of
service akin to the tradition of library reference services. For example, one
of the reasons ATI requests can seem to be “frivolous and vexatious” appears to
be that people request very large amounts of information because they do not
have sufficient understanding of government operations to know what to ask for.
Having a professional serving in an intermediary role who understands both
information seeking behaviour and the kind of information that is held by government
would likely be more efficient in many cases.
people find the information they need (reference services) and providing
education on how to understand the need for information, find, evaluate and
effectively use it (information literacy), is a traditional role of public,
school, corporate and academic libraries.
work with Library and Archives Canada and open government representatives at
all levels (municipal, provincial, global) to advocate for an emerging role for
libraries of all types in the areas of open government and incorporate
professional information services within government departments.
transparency in trade treaty negotiations
towards openness and transparency in government while at the same time failing
to engage with citizens on trade agreements that will impact our jobs,
communities, and businesses, is moving in opposite directions at the same time.
Recommendation: extend open dialogue to trade treaty negotiations, beginning
with the Trans Pacific Partnership.
government and access to government services for people with disabilities
data and the potential for data visualization offer tremendous potential for
the advancement of Canadian society and should be embraced. However, the
formats also create new challenges for people with disabilities such as print
disabilities. Recommendation: address these challenges proactively through
working with groups representing disabled communities and show global
leadership in advocating for technological solutions to facilitate equitable open
restrictions on access to data to avoid harm to vulnerable groups
plan appropriately recognizes the need to consider the protection of personal
privacy in the release of open data. I recommend that potential harm to
vulnerable groups be another consideration in deciding whether data should be
released. For example, data about valuable exploitable resources on lands our
First Nations peoples own or depend on should not be released without
consultation with the peoples who would be affected.
comments on the draft plan
– Towards an Open and Transparent Government
third bullet: “a review of the Access to Information Act, and efforts to
accelerate and expand initiatives to help Canadians easily access and use open
data, by the President of the Treasury Board working with the ministers of
Justice and Democratic Institutions”
split into 2 bullet points to avoid confusion because Access to Information and
open data initiatives are two very different types of activities.
Open Government Partnership
the fifth grand challenge, “Increasing corporate accountability”: measures that
address corporate responsibility on issues such as the environment,
anti-corruption, consumer protection, and community engagement.
addressing this challenge would be a golden opportunity to begin to address the
limitations of the corporate sector’s single bottom line focus on profit,
financially defined. This draft plan is weak in this sector and I would like to
see expansion of commitments in this area. Some suggestions:
Review legislation on corporations and other businesses to
recognize triple bottom line accounting (financial, social, environment)
Develop a consultation process with citizens, civil society
organizations, academics and business to uncover challenges to corporate
accountability and draft solutions
A. Open by Default
Third paragraph, “Being “open by default” also means allowing Canadians to more
easily access government services through
a single online window [emphasis added]”.
change this sentence to “Being “open by default” also means allowing Canadians
to more easily access government services through
effective access mechanisms designed to facilitate accountability on service
delivery [emphasis added]”.
see “to centralize or not to centralize” above.
1: Enhance Access to Information
is good to see a commitment to updating the Access to Information Act. Open
government will never replace the need for a mechanism for citizens to
effectively demand access to information. Government by definition holds power,
and power inevitably will attract those who wish to pursue personal gain
through corruption. Also, mistakes and poor decisions or even good decisions
that did not produce the expected results cannot always be avoided. There will
always be a temptation for government staff as well as elected representatives
to open or close, highlight or suppress information based on whether it makes
the government look good. If you don’t want to release a piece of information
it’s all too easy to perceive a request for the information as “frivolous and
vexatious”. An important strength of the action plan is “giving the Information
Commissioner the power to order the release of government information”.
first bullet: “Making government data and information open by default, in
formats that are modern and easy to use;”
add a second and third bullet to address the ongoing need for ATI and to
streamline the process through the provision of reference services:
Providing easy-to-use, cost-free mechanisms for requesting any
information that is not open by default;
Develop professional intermediary services to help requestors
identify with precision the information required
re the second suggested bullet, see the section “reference and information
2: Streamline Requests for Personal Information
How it will be done – line 2: “a simple,
central website [emphasis added] where Canadians can submit requests to any
change to: “a simple, central website where Canadians can submit requests to
any government institution to supplement
requesting services that are most efficiently handled by the collecting
see the section “to centralize or not to centralize?” above
3: Expand and Improve Open Data
5th milestone: “Improve Canadians’ access to data and information
proactively disclosed by departments and agencies through a single, common online search tool
change to “Improve Canadians’ access to data and information proactively
disclosed by departments and agencies through
departmental websites as well as a single, common online search tool”
see the section on “to centralize or not to centralize” above.
4: Provide and Preserve Open Information
Milestone 4: “Update Library and Archives Canada’s online archive of the
Government of Canada’s web presence to ensure Canadians’ long-term access to
federal web content”.
– add a Milestone: consult with academic experts and Library and Archives
Canada to develop a plan, recommendation and funding analysis to capture
Canadian content on the web.
I applaud the addition of this milestone, but would note that we need to
capture Canadian content on the web in general, not just federal web content.
Currently, some of this content is voluntarily captured by Internet Archive,
however I think Canadians have a duty to take this on ourselves, for profound
social, legal and cultural reasons. Material that until recently was produced
in print and often archived and preserved by libraries and archives is
increasingly available only online and risks being lost, sometimes after only a
short period of time.
7: Embed Transparency Requirements in the Federal Service Strategy
first Milestone “Development a Government and Canada Clients-First Service
Strategy that aims to create a single
online window [emphasis added] for all government services”.
change to: Development a Government and Canada Clients-First Service Strategy
that aims to create a efficient and
effective online access [emphasis added] for all government services through a departmental or centralized
online window, whichever is most effective for citizens”.
see to centralize or not to centralize above.
8: Enhance Access to Culture & Heritage Collections
“The Government of Canada will expand collaboration with its provincial,
territorial, and municipal partners and key stakeholders to develop a
searchable National Inventory of Cultural and Heritage Artefacts to improve
access across museum collections”.
second paragraph, “…the government will
provide Canadians [emphasis added] with the tools they need to visualize
spending data and compare fiscal information across departments, between
locations, and over time”.
change to “…the government will develop
an arms-length service to provide Canadians with the tools they need to
visualize spending data and compare fiscal information across departments,
between locations, and over time and
encourage all members of the open government partnership to do likewise”.
Comment: it is fairly easy for an interested party to set up
visualization tools to “help” people see things like financial data from a
particular perspective. This can be deliberate or reflect unconscious biases. For
example, to help people understand tax data, one can choose from a number of
different potential comparison points. The tax freedom date approach showing
how long it takes an average Canadian to work to pay taxes before they get to
keep money is a good choice for people ideologically opposed to taxation and
seeking tax breaks. In contrast, those of us who think public health care is
the right way to go both for social and financial reasons tend to see data
demonstrating the lower per-capita health spending in Canada as compared to
countries with private health care as an obvious and important way of
demonstrating the truth. A government that has succeeded in lowering corporate
taxes by two-thirds and does not want public critique creeping into public
budget discussions might be tempted to present budget data showing how little
is gained by a small to medium increase in the existing corporate tax rate and
avoid historical comparisons. A government determined to reserve the corporate
tax rate cuts would likely emphasize historical comparisons.
Commitment 10: Increase Transparency of Budget Data and
Economic and Fiscal Analysis
Re: “The Government of Canada will provide access to the
datasets used in the Federal Budget each year in near real time [emphasis added]”.
Suggested change (addition) to: “The Government of Canada
will provide access to the datasets used in the Federal Budget each year in near real time starting with Budget 2017 and will explore the feasibility of providing
as many of these datasets as possible in advance of the release of the budget.
Comment: near real time datasets to help Canadians understand
the budget would be a major leap forward, however in the long term for
Canadians to have meaningful input into the budget process and parliamentarians
to have full information for decision-making purposes, we have to have access
to the datasets before the Budget is
developed. One thought is that after Budget 2017 the datasets identified for
release could be prioritized for timely open data release after that point in
Commitment 11: Increase Transparency of Grants and Contributions
Re: “one stop access”: in this instance centralized access
makes a lot of sense!
C. Innovation, Prosperity, and Sustainable Development
Re: “Making government data and information openly available to Canadians without restrictions on reuse [emphasis
Suggested change to: “Making government data and information openly available with minimal restrictions
on reuse and the expectation of reuse in the spirit of the public good…”
Comments: although the spirit of “no restrictions” is one that
I agree with, a major positive change, and internationally embraced by open
government advocates as consensus, this is an area where in my professional
opinion too open an approach invites
problems as well as benefits for the social good. For example, as contributors
to the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN) recently discovered, their free
sharing of their work in what they thought of as an open access archive enabled
not only open access but also the sale of SSRN to the world’s largest commercial
scholarly publisher, Elsevier, a corporation that benefits from a profit rate
of about $1 billion US a year (39%) profit based primarily on toll access and that
has incentive to create new locked-down services. I believe this is an early
indication of a potential danger of open data that is too open. For example, in
the case of government data, too open an approach to data release could result
in effective privatization of public services. “Without restrictions on reuse”
is so broad that it can include charging for services, paying Internet service
providers to have for-pay services prioritized over free public services, making
the latter less useful, and using profits to lobby against funding for free
public services that profitable commercial re-users are likely to see as
Open data should be open to anyone, not just Canadians. In
order to have the full benefit of open access to government data we need to be
able to use data from any jurisdiction and compare data across jurisdictions.
C. Innovation, Prosperity, and Sustainable Development
Re – second paragraph: “the Government of Canada will be
building strategic partnerships with other governments at the provincial,
territorial, and municipal level, to support the development of common
standards and principles for open data”.
Comment: good idea, but add the global level; this will be
necessary to create innovations that work across jurisdiction and allow
Commitment 14: Increase Openness of Federal Science
Activities (Open Science)
Comments: kudos, this is great to see!!! Note that the
granting councils already have policies on open access to research outputs and
digital data management strategies. With respect to open access to documents,
it might be worth looking at the tri-agency policy. With respect to digital
data management strategies, there are important differences between government
data, collected by the government for purposes of public policy, typically
collected by government staff in the course of their employment and originally
owned and controlled by the government, and academic research data which
frequently involves third parties such as research subjects and third party
organizations (e.g. police data is important to criminologists, business data
to business researchers). Here I see many more issues arising from opening of
data and I recommend separate treatment of academic research and government
Commitment 15: Stimulate Innovation through Canada’s Open
Data Exchange (ODX)
This is a great initiative, but this is where building in the
concept of free reuse in the context of commitment to the public good (see C
above) is important to avoid the potential privatization of free public
20: Enable Open Dialogue and Open Policy Making
Milestone 1 “Promote common principles for Open Dialogue and common practices
across the Government of Canada to enable the use of new methods for consulting
and engaging Canadians”.
I think that this is a great idea, but the potential of Web 2.0 to facilitate
open dialogue and open policy making is in its infancy. Consider that we are
still working towards universal basic literacy centuries after the invention of
the printing press. I think that considerable research into how to use the web for
open dialogue and policy making is needed, and how to engage citizens who may
not have access to the web or are otherwise unlikely to use this means of
participation. Perhaps this could be one of the upcoming challenge areas for
the granting councils? (Disclosure: if this happens I might apply for such a
Commitment 22: Engage Canadians to Improve Key Canada Revenue
Re: 3rd milestone: “Engage with indigenous
Canadians to better understand the issues, root causes, and data gaps that may
be preventing eligible individuals from accessing benefits.”
Recommendation: add a strong, specific commitment to increase
the number of indigenous Canadians receiving benefits or perhaps a specific
type of benefit to which they are entitled.
In conclusion, please consider these detailed comments as
input intended to improve a solid plan ambitious plan by a new government that
already deserves kudos for swift action in a number of important areas. Thank
you for the opportunity to provide these comments, and to be actively engaged
in the preceding in-person and online consultation processes.
des sciences de l'information / School of Information Studies
Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics
the Knowledge Commons http://sustainingknowledgecommons.org/
Heather dot Morrison at uottawa.ca
June 23, 2016