Around the world, governments are committing to the idea of open government: being transparent and accountable to citizens. (Please see my previous article for a general definition of open government.) The movement has gained traction since the founding in 2011 of an international organization, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), with 75 member countries (including Canada), annually holds a worldwide summit. But while the movement is building overall, it’s stalling and even falling apart at times in certain places around the world — and in Canada.

The international Open Government Partnership Summit in 2016 came on the heels of a rise in reactionary politics around the world and changes to a number of governments that had once been open government champions. The word to describe the state of open government worldwide was fragile. Even after some 2,500 open government commitments made by member countries since 2011, and after an international Open Data Charter and vocal political support, the implication was clear: progress towards open government is not certain. Maintaining the gains that advocates and civil society organizations had made is not guaranteed. Where once open government seemed like an inevitable force, it now appears more like a wave that could peak and break.

A common theme of open government initiatives in Canadian jurisdictions was what one official called “the open government retrograde.” The experience has been that open government programs made a year or two or three of progress before a period of slowdown or backsliding. This declining momentum was usually provoked by a change in elected government, though the loss of senior bureaucratic champions can also impact these programs. A recurring principle started to emerge: political support for open government initiatives was necessary, but too much was dangerous for longevity.

As an example, Newfoundland and Labrador, the government ran public consultations on open government and solidified an action plan shortly before an election in which the party in power was defeated. The newly elected government had the right and legitimacy to establish and pursue its own policy platform, but it was faced with a dilemma. The existing plan had become, in effect, part of the previous government’s platform. But it was also the platform of the community of stakeholders that had organized around the concept of open government. Its direction had public legitimacy. As one advocate said, “It’s not the government’s plan; it’s our plan.” The government eventually relented and honoured the commitments.

This is one example of many, but it points to how open government is not a fait accompli.

In Canada, we’ve tended to look at open government through one of two lenses: there’s the idea of transparency and having the information government holds available to citizens, and the idea of engagement whereby citizens are increasingly involved in decisions that interest or impact them. These lenses obscure a more universal concern, that of safeguarding democracy for the long term. It’s easy for governments to be transparent and to engage citizens when they want to; the question is how to ensure that happens when it’s hard. The lesson that can be drawn from international politics is that progress on open government is not guaranteed.

In Canada’s case, there is a bit of promising news. On September 21, the federal government accepted the role of co-chair of the Open Government Partnership. It’s a signal of continued commitment, and it means the world will be watching Canada’s example.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Lightspring.

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Kent Aitken
Kent Aitken has spent the last few years working for the federal government on accountability, transparency and citizen engagement. He was the Prime Ministers of Canada Fellow at the Public Policy Forum, studying and advising on governance in the digital age.

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