Last week, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne launched Open Ontario, the provincial government’s strategy for open government. This week, some 60 countries will convene in London, England, for the Open Government Partnership, and Canada is among them. So what is open government, how has the concept developed and what challenges lie ahead? 

Three stages for open governmentAround the world, governments face increasingly complex social challenges while public resources are decreasing. Many public agencies seem locked into old systems that are in bad need of redesign.

Developing solutions for society is hard these days. At the same time, capacity for problem solving is stronger than ever. People are better educated and more informed, and many citizens want to be actively involved in making society better—and have the tools to do it, thanks to today’s technologies.

The challenge for governments, therefore, is to start developing solutions with society, not just for society.

To me, that is what open government is all about. I believe there are three stages of open government:

First stage: Transparency

The drive toward open government started with a demand for more transparency and accountability. When President Barack Obama launched his Open Government Initiative on his first day in office in 2009, his first argument for the initiative was to ensure public trust and to establish a system of transparency, participation and collaboration. Governments that acknowledge this need make sure that information about the government and government data is easily accessible and freely available. Most governments have enacted freedom of information acts or, more actively, publish relevant documents on their websites. Some even do it more innovatively, using dashboards, Google Maps, public agendas and other ways to show how government operates. OpenSpending is a nice example of that.

Although open government is more than open data, open government can hardly exist without open data. Likewise, open data is more than just about transparency. As Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation recently stated:

“Transparency is knowing about something, but accountability is holding someone to account. Technology will not magically turn the former into the latter.”

Improving transparency and accountability can thus be seen as a first stage of open government. However, that does not increase government’s ability to create and deliver solutions. It shows the public what government is doing, but does not make use of society’s capacity for problem solving.

Second stage: Participation

In this stage, government must begin having open dialogue with citizens. It must allow citizens to become involved in the decision-making process, using their knowledge and creativity to arrive at better solutions. In the process, governments gain more legitimacy and support.

Dialogue can be achieved in many ways. For example, online surveys and forums, smart apps, petition websites and other methods that support citizens getting involved. Recent years have also seen innovation in creating offline civic engagement to tackle tough policy options. Just take a look at Peter MacLeod of MASS LBP, who has pioneered this approach through activities such as civic lotteries and citizen reference panels.

Third stage: Collaboration

The third stage of open government is about getting beyond consultation to real collaboration or co-production of solutions with society. We then arrive at what Beth Noveck, who first led Obama’s Open Government Initiative and now runs The Governance Lab at New York University, coined as “collaborative democracy.” Here, the role of open data really comes into play. However, publishing open data is easier said than done. It means developing standards and platforms to publish the data, and ensuring the quality of the data and metadata. It is not just about allowing society to use government data; it is about making it actively and freely available.

When done correctly, open data can be a tremendous force of innovation and public value creation. Just think of the geo-data you probably use every day on your smartphone. Open energy consumption data is another example, allowing us to create more energy efficiency, like what is happening with the Green Button initiative here in Ontario. By using software platforms for collaboration, crowdsourcing and other new-tech approaches, we can turn the relationship between citizens and government into more of a partnership.

It is important to remember that although technology can support open government in great ways, its success depends on so much more. Being “open” demands a different attitude, new strategies and new ways of working. The private sector is learning that lesson as well, and rapidly. There, it’s called open innovation. Look at GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, which brought the company $25 million in new revenue in 2012 alone. Consider the many startups using Kickstarter as a platform to get their companies going or Eli Lilly and Company, which pioneered crowdsourcing by creating InnoCentive to rapidly generate innovative new ideas and solve problems faster, more cost effectively and with less risk than ever before.

That is the strategy governments should embrace. From transit to waste management, and from education to health, the promise of open government is becoming more real every day. The challenge is to learn how to be a part of it.

Get involved! Join us for GovMaker Day

Want to know more about open government? Come to GovMaker Day on November 22 at MaRS Discovery District to hear:

  • Paul Macmillan (co-author of The Solution Revolution) share global examples of open government done right;
  • Ron McKerlie, Ontario deputy minister of open government, explain the Open Government Strategy for Ontario;
  • Ann Pappert, the chief administrative officer of the City of Guelph, speak about how the city can be more open; and
  • A range of practitioners from government and civil society, including Peter MacLeod, share how they made it happen and how you can apply open government in your own practice.

Find out more and register here.

Joeri van den Steenhoven

Joeri was VP of Systems Innovation and the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…