David Eaves on Open Government

May 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm | In canada, innovation, leadership, politics, silo_think, web | 1 Comment

David Eaves is one of Canada’s strongest proponents for a cultural sea-change in government, from closed bureaucracy to open government. In this video he’s interviewed by Steve Paikin of TVO. (See the accompanying blog post, too, and click through to Steve’s channel “The Agenda” for other shows.

Eaves hit on many terrific arguments in favor of open government – here are my two favorites. The first comes toward the end of the segment, where he’s talking about the public-facing side of government. Below, a rough transcript of what he said:

So, let’s look at the public-facing side. So, open data – I don’t want to claim by any stretch that it’s the be-all and end-all of open government but I do think it’s an incredibly important piece.

I mean, if you look at what the privacy commissioner wrote yesterday – the access to information, how it’s broken …I think there were ten ministries that had failing grades! People today live in an era where the average Google search is something like point three [0.3] seconds – thats how quickly they expect to get information. And now suddenly you have a government where if you want to know about something it takes six, seven, eight, nine months?

There’s this wonderful phrase on the internet that the internet treats censorship like a failure and it routes around it. And I have a real concern that people, especially young people, look at government and at the pace that it moves, and they see it either as censorship or just simply as broken …and they’re gonna route around it.

Exactly. This is what government needs to wrap its collective head around (and change) if it wants public engagement. In Victoria, my city is spending tens upon tens of thousands of dollars to craft “public engagement” strategies, but for the most part, voter turnout continues to suck, especially with younger or web-savvy people. Why? Because we see municipal government here as broken, and we either have the enthusiasm (idealism?) to “route around it,” or we say, “to hell with you” and go windsurfing instead.

Fair or not, we feel this way about the people who work in government at the staffing level, and we feel this way about the politicians. If citizens aren’t engaged, it’s not because they don’t care at a fundamental level about the things that government is supposed to address. It’s just that they can’t get no satisfaction – and certainly no transparent action.  (I’m referring in particular to the City of Victoria, which has an atrocious, opaque, hard-to-navigate website and which continues to post documents in non-machine-readable format [PDF] – if it puts them out at all [meeting agendas or minutes are a total hit-and-miss affair, it seems].)

The other piece of the conversation that really struck me was nearer the beginning, when Eaves spoke to the culture within bureaucracies, and how it needs to change at least as much as bureaucracy’s public-facing side. A significant potential of such a sea-change would be cost-savings and greater efficiency.

Eaves began by using the Facebook example – how, if you list your interests or favorite movies, each item becomes a hyper-link that shows who else has the same interests, etc. With an internal Facebook-like system, bureaucracies can do the same thing and thereby tap the expertise within their own organization (Federal government, Provincial government, Municipal government, etc.). This would allow government workers to find other expert government workers, and leverage their collective expertise. Right now, instead, our governments spend money to hire consultants:

The government is huge, an enormous organization, and people hire consultants all of the time because that consultant has some sort of expertise that you need. If you could suddenly find that expertise within government, you could do more with less.

Well, I suppose that illustrates another roadblock to open government: it’s against the vested interests of the consultants industry. I live in a government town, which means the city is filled with people who have some connection to consulting “for the government.” It’s a big chunk of the local economy.

Perhaps that economic gravy train (or revolving door, since many consultants are ex-government workers) explains why it’s so difficult to shift the culture here in Victoria: it works well enough for a well-connected, entrenched minority who don’t want it to change. Similar drivers are likely at work in other government towns across the world.

I had a wicked idea for an illustration: picture an archipelago of government silos, with knowledgeable government workers trapped inside, peering out but unable to communicate with one another. The silos are, however, connected at the top by a looping, circular, endless rail line on which rides a train pulling a wagon filled with consultants. Hm, what do we call that train….? 😉

It’s another reason to bridge the silos in every way possible, to create open government internally, within the organizations.

If you’re a Canadian government worker, check out Eaves’s side project, datadotgc.ca, and see about contributing your data sets.

1 Comment

  1. […] on his efforts to promote, and enact, Open Information, E-Government and Gov 2.0 principles. Yule’s blog post focused on two Free […]

    Pingback by Gov 2.0 - Resistance to a Changing Culture — May 7, 2010 #

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