Canada is at its most significant juncture in its open government initiative since its inception in 2011. Having been elected to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Steering Committee and accepted the position of co-chair, Canada will helm the world’s foremost open government network for the next two years.

Open government is an overarching governance philosophy that has been adopted by many countries. The government of Canada defines it as “a governing culture that fosters greater openness and accountability, enhances citizen participation in policymaking and service design, and creates a more efficient and responsive government.” One major component of Canada’s open government movement is open data, defined as data that “can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose.” The open government movement is driven at the global scale by the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral network of national governments, subnational governments, civil society stakeholders and nongovernmental organizations that aims “to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

Canada’s new role gives it the mandate to influence policy in OGP members’ national action plans (their high-level policy commitments). The government now has some important decisions to make. How should Canada lead the OGP over the next two years? What are the prerequisites for leadership in open government? How can Canada help other countries with their open government initiatives? Appropriate actions in response to these questions will solidify Canada’s co-leadership of the OGP and potential for leadership in the open government movement at large. What’s more, open government at home reinforces the values that Canada promotes in its foreign policy and is a supplement to Canadian soft power. Soft power, defined by Joseph Nye as the ability to exert influence using noncoercive and nonviolent means, has been a staple of Canada’s foreign policy for decades; it involves the use of moral arguments and multilateral negotiations and solutions.

Canada’s soft power has traditionally been seen in its advocacy of initiatives such as the Responsibility to Protect, its promotion of global poverty reduction via the Canadian International Development Agency (before its absorption into the foreign ministry), and its support for multilateral governance (through bodies such as the United Nations). Soft power is evidenced in Canada’s stance on landmines, pollutants and ozone depletion, and nuclear weapons; negotiations in these three areas resulted in landmark international agreements, including the Ottawa Treaty, the Montreal Protocol and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Through such policy, Canada labelled itself a middle power, one that does not use the threat of military force to enact change — an approach that continues to this day. Canada in the 21st century has seen a refined set of values emerge, particularly under the current Liberal government. Today, Canada promotes more than simply diplomatic solutions. It promotes diversity and pluralism alongside social and technological innovation through the market. Today’s Canada is about innovation within a progressive social framework — and this is where open government comes in.

Why does open government matter? Trust in government is of paramount importance; without it, societies and economies break down. Recent political and economic developments have shown that governance is susceptible to co-optation and the influence of special interests, which has led to an erosion of trust in our institutions (a driving force behind the creation of the OGP). At its core, open government is meant to strengthen the link between citizen and government. The connection works in two directions: increased engagement and involvement of citizens (and civil society organizations) in government decisions; and increased transparency of (and access to) government processes and data. Bringing citizens closer to governments through open data and technology has the potential to increase government accountability, create better (or more relevant) policies and promote mutual trust between citizens and government.

The Open Government Partnership is the leading international body that drives discourse and binds nations together under a common open government agenda. Within this network of over 75 countries, ideas are shared and countries make commitments. Members adopt the Open Government Declaration, which states a commitment to making information about governmental activities available, supporting civic participation, increasing integrity in the public sector and using technologies to promote openness and accountability. The OGP promotes open government reform through political support at the highest levels of government and works to create commonly accepted standards. Subnational governments can also be members; the province of Ontario belongs. The OGP also addresses subthemes such as human rights, Indigenous peoples and even climate change.

Canada now has more resources and a mandate to lead the global open government movement forward in implementation.

The OGP is a forum where members compare each other’s approaches, learn from one another and hold each other accountable for fulfilling their commitments. It commands considerable resources and networks with which to promote and develop open government around the world. This is what makes the position of co-chair so important: Canada now has more resources and a mandate to lead the global open government movement forward in implementation.

The OGP has been incredibly beneficial to Canadian civil society, and to our organization, OpenNorth, a civil society organization promoting open data and open government. Through the OGP, OpenNorth has had the good fortune to learn from many civil society organizations around the world. We had the opportunity to collaborate internationally, through co-leadership of the Open Data Working Group’s standards stream. We were able to do research on open data standards and share it with civil society and government internationally. This level of knowledge dissemination would not have been possible without the OGP.

Because of this earlier work, we anticipated an expansion of Canada’s global role earlier in the year and decided to research some recommendations that civil society could make to the government of Canada if it was indeed appointed to the OGP Steering Committee. In a joint project between OpenNorth and Powered by Data, we interviewed 13 leading civil society experts in open government for their opinions of Canada’s current approach and their recommendations for Canadian leadership. Six recommendations were synthesized from these interviews and formed the basis for a paper titled Canada in the World: Towards Canadian-Led Open Government.

Without proven domestic commitment to transparency standards, access-to-information reform and a whole-of-government approach, Canadian leadership will be difficult to accept abroad.

We found that leading by example in open government requires an outward, proactive approach to reforms. This includes being a standard-bearer for transparency by adopting existing standards for data and transparency standards (such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Open Contracting Data Standard). Without proven domestic commitment to transparency standards, access-to-information reform and a whole-of-government approach, Canadian leadership will be difficult to accept abroad. Transparency must extend beyond the public sector, too. Canadian companies operating abroad should abide by the same standards of transparency that we expect them to follow at home. Firms abiding by Canadian transparency standards would reap the benefits of trustworthiness provided by the Canadian brand.

We recommend that open government principles and policy be expanded to cover more policy areas, particularly foreign policy. Current implementation of open government in the federal government is limited to a Directive on Open Government that requires all ministries “to maximize the release of government information and data of business value,” with the expected result that “Canadians are able to find and use Government of Canada information and data.” However, it does not promote collaboration across ministries or agencies. Open government is more than just making data available to the public; it is about finding solutions to civic problems through collaboration. Many problems are multijurisdictional in nature, and it is difficult to collaborate and solve problems without an open government approach that works both horizontally and vertically. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, open government presents a useful, cohesive framing for Canadian values that are being exported abroad through aid, knowledge sharing and diplomacy in general.

Given Canada’s new position at the OGP, we see Canadian investment in developing open government policy and practice domestically as a win at home and abroad. Indeed, through the OGP and other networks, advances in governance models and institutional practices that incorporate technology, engagement and open data can improve good governance efforts in many countries.

Nevertheless, Canada can still learn from developments abroad in order to reinforce its leadership effectiveness at the OGP. Open government is not a mere ideological framing for open data — other countries are demonstrating a serious commitment to developing the infrastructure and capacity to reshape government itself. Already, other OGP countries are leapfrogging over us by adopting transparency standards and developing systems to track beneficial ownership in order to reduce tax evasion and capital flight. Multilateral negotiated solutions to enhance transparency of beneficial ownership may be required.

Transparency and open government are linked to our foreign policy and soft power. For a country that has thrived internationally as a middle power and measures itself in moral terms against its neighbours, maintaining the moral ground that fuels soft power is a strategic goal unto itself. Our comparative advantage in soft power can and will be eroded if we are not more proactive, outward-looking and competitive in implementing open government. The Canadian brand requires occasional renewal with the introduction of a motivating vision, and leadership at the OGP presents one such opportunity.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

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Jean-Noé Landry is a social entrepreneur and executive director of OpenNorth. As an open data expert, he leads OpenNorth to collaborate domestically with all levels of Canadian government, and internationally with institutions including the Open Government Partnership and the Open Data Charter.  
Suthee Sangiambut is research and policy officer of OpenNorth. He has published academically on citizen engagement via open data and civic apps, and the role of infomediaries in the open data ecosystem in Canada. His work situates him at the intersection of technology, policy and democratic theory.

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