Opening up Ontario’s government requires — first and foremost — all parties to put their egos aside.
One of the greatest barriers to progress in any government institution is bureaucratic hierarchy, but improving Ontarians’ access to information and online services requires each party to identify their strengths and admit their weaknesses.
“There’s a sense that we want to own things,” said Sameer Vasta, special advisor of organizational change for the Government of Ontario, during the GTEC conference in Ottawa in late October. “We want to establish ourselves as leaders in open government, and at the same time you’ve got Guelph and Toronto and other cities saying the same.”
Vasta said admitting weakness is never good politics, but acknowledging when and who to ask for help is vital to improving Ontario’s open government ecosystem.
“The idea of the egoless ecosystem is the acknowledgement that sure, we’re all working on something similar, but we also all have different capacity, different expertise and different mandates,” he said. “As a provincial entity, we’re really good at policy making and program design, we are not necessarily good at citizen-facing services … so why are we trying to own citizen-facing open government?”
Fellow panellist Nancy Isozaki, director of corporate information policy and management for the City of Toronto, echoed Vasta’s sentiment.
“The public doesn’t know, or care, that the underlying data represents multiple, inter-jurisdictional agreements with agencies, governments and civil society groups,” she said.
Taking advantage of the secondary-use market
Isozaki adds that the public also has a key role to play in building better online government services. She said the government far too often hesitates before making incomplete information public. But she believes delivering information that is not 100 per cent accurate gives the public an opportunity to improve those services in ways the government cannot.
This summer, for example, the City of Toronto set out to build a map that included the location of all bicycle posts in the city. It published the information knowing it wasn’t completely accurate because it was of immediate interest to the public.
“As long as we defined our expectations of the accuracy of that data, we put it out there, and what we found is the cycling community stepped up to the plate,” she said. “They sent people out and they verified the locations. It served our original purpose, but then it changed into a different purpose, and then it becomes a question of do we sustain it?”
Though the secondary market doesn’t always have direct value to government, releasing data to the public, even if it’s not completely accurate, is extremely valuable to users and goes a long way in building trust for the public sector, explained panelist Joe Greenwood, program director of MaRS Data Catalyst.
“Certain information categories, where there is a release at a certain level, there’s enough intrinsic value that others start to refine that value,” he said. “The secondary use is going to be slightly different than your original intention, but you want that to occur.”
Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos