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Taking ownership of the open government action plan: Canadians need to work together

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As it does every two years, the Government of Canada released its open government action plan, the third of its kind so far. And yet, for many of the millions of engaged Canadians across the country, the existence of this plan remains unknown to them.

Indeed, the release of the plan garnered little to no media attention in the last few weeks, despite it being part of a larger global movement – the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – and despite it setting out significant commitments on a diverse set of issues that matter to many Canadians.

Commitments like enhancing fiscal transparency and accountability in the extractive sector at home and abroad, and creating a Chief Science Officer to ensure that not only government science is fully available to the public, but that federal scientists are able to speak freely about their work – a welcome change from previous years. Or their commitment to making all budget data available in near real time with the release of its budget starting next year, and providing one-stop access to consistent, searchable data on grants and contributions (G&Cs) programs.

These are welcome developments, but access to greater information doesn’t mean greater awareness, meaningful engagement, or collective impact if that data isn’t utilized effectively.

If you’ve been keeping up to date with Open North’s activities, you would know that earlier this spring we co-founded the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network, which seeks to establish a permanent dialogue mechanism between the federal government and civil society. It’s truly rewarding to see that the government has agreed to commit to our proposal and is consistently taking an open dialogue approach with Canadians in order to foster transparency and to partner with civil society.

But an “open dialogue about open government”? That sounds a little…open-ended. Indeed, Commitment 19 has been set out in fairly vague terms. It’s worth perhaps backtracking to get a better idea about the importance of this commitment.

As a member of the OGP, Canada must produce biennial action plans to help steer its open government initiatives. They’re a testament to a global political will to fight corruption and harness new technologies to improve governance and enhance transparency. Amongst its numerous efforts, Canada has undertaken gradual efforts to develop infrastructure for a shared, sustainable and harmonized open data program across all levels of government – even garnering itself star status among the 68 member countries.

As part of the OGP, Canada is required to undertake public consultations when preparing and implementing its plans. As there were issues with the scope and nature of the consultation process over the last two action plans, this time around, Open North and like-minded organizations decided to co-found a network in order to coordinate civil society input and make sure a diversity of voices were heard.

Our joint proposal set out three goals as part of its vision: first, to co-develop commitments for the action plan (mission accomplished!); secondly, to co-implement the commitments laid out by the government (we’ll soon have a first meeting with the government to develop the modalities of the engagement mechanisms); and thirdly, to co-assess their performance.

But what does it all mean in practical terms? How do we go about fostering dialogue on open governance issues between government and civil society members in a concrete and efficient way? If we look to other OGP members, it’s unsurprising that a multitude of different collaboration models and approaches have been adopted – yet they all face similar challenges.

From promoting open governance beyond a core group of activists to balancing the trade-off between public interests and government priorities, these mechanisms have a demanding road ahead. But one thing is clear: such an engagement mechanism is useful for both government and civil society.

The reality is that dialogue is sometimes messy and often relies on the tone set by the government of the day. Building and maintaining clear and trustworthy relationships between civil society members and government officials that lead to impactful partnerships is not easy. We’re looking forward to working with our government partners to co-design and co-implement this commitment. The experience of other open government partnerships like those in the United Kingdom, Mexico, and the Philippines, show that we have a lot of catching up to do. But it can be done and we must seize Minister Brison’s expressed willingness to engage.

Civil society has a responsibility to step up, organize itself, and to scale out the open government conversation beyond a core group of tech savvy organizations – Canadians need to take ownership of this plan and this opportunity. So far, we’ve fallen a little short of this task. While it was great seeing 70 proposals being submitted during the ideation phase of the action plan, we need to be broadening the community of stakeholders involved by connecting with communities of practice and issue-driven organizations across Canada for whom increased transparency, access to information, and accountability matter.

This isn’t just the federal government’s plan – this is Canada’s plan and your plan too.

It’s time to get involved. Stay informed and engaged on issues that matter to you by joining the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network if you haven’t already. Just send an email to join@opengovdialogue.ca and join the discussion about open governance in Canada.

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