Canada not on track to fulfil 'open government' pledge

Government transparency advocates say Treasury Board President Tony Clement's 'open government' plan doesn't go far enough to fully comply with an international commitment made last year.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement in Brazil for open government conference to measure progress

Some members of a high-level panel struck by the Conservatives to offer advice on increasing transparency in government say a recently-released open-door plan doesn't go far enough.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, seen here meeting reporters in February, is in Brazil representing Canada at an open government conference this week. Transparency advocates suggest Canada isn't on track to meet commitments it made when it joined the international partnership last year. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

And at least one advocacy group continues to urge the international community to reject the proposal for open government that Canada presented Tuesday at a conference in Brazil.

Developing a concrete plan on making government more transparent was a requirement for membership in the Open Government Partnership, an international effort Canada joined last year.

More than 50 countries have signed on, committing to develop explicit plans to give citizens more access to the inner workings of government in a bid to improve how governments actually run.

Canada's blueprint seeks to usher record-keeping and the release of information into the digital age over the next three years, with the stated goal of making open government the "default approach."

But open-data advocate David Eaves, who is among 13 members of a federal advisory panel on the issue, questioned the plan's ability to meet that goal.

He said it isn't about transforming government, but more about engaging in medium-sized experiments.

"What is promising about the document is that it does present an opportunity for some foundational pieces to be put into play," he wrote in an analysis.

"The bad news is that real efforts to rethink government's relationship with citizens, or even the role of the public servant within a digital government, have not been taken very far."

Membership criteria not met: Democracy Watch

The plan doesn't even meet the partnership's membership criteria, advocacy group Democracy Watch said Tuesday.

Among other things, the advocacy group said the government failed to give advance notice of public consultations. When they did consult, it was over the Christmas season.

"The federal Conservatives continue to try to spin their limited online data activities as an actual open government action plan, and continue to refuse to keep their commitments to strengthening the rules and enforcement systems in federal transparency, ethics, anti-corruption, lobbying, consultation, whistleblower protection, political finance, and waste prevention laws, " said Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, in a statement.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the annual Open Government Partnership conference in Brasilia, Brazil, on Tuesday. (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)

"And so the international Open Government Partnership steering committee should reject and criticize their plan."

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said Canada's plan is being well-received.

"Things have been very good here on the ground in Brazil," he said in a e-mail via a spokesperson.

"Canadian civil society is doing what they need to do -- challenge us to go further and do more, and we are listening and working with them."

Advisory panel rarely meets

The creation of an advisory panel was one of the recommendations that came forward during public consultations.

In addition to Eaves, it includes such stars of the digital world as Vivek Kundra, who was the first chief information officer appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama, and Robert Herjavec, known to most Canadians as one of the investors on the popular show Dragon's Den.

University of Ottawa law professor Teresa Scassa, who is also on the panel, said it is only set to meet four times a year, so she's not sure how involved it will be decision making.

She said each of the three prongs of the government's plan -- open government, open data and open dialogue -- speak to democratic values.

But she said open government also requires a culture shift among those who own and control data.

Scassa cited the recent case of Canada Post filing a lawsuit against a geographic data company, alleging that its collection of postal codes violates the post office's copyright.

"It really raises this question about where do we want to be as a government, as a country," she said.

"This is part of it. When do you realize that letting go provides opportunities for creativity, for innovation and for other things to start happening in the marketplace?"

Clement told the conference that governments and citizens ought to be working together.

"Governments have a key role to play, but that role is not to be a substitute for the citizens it represents," he said, according to a prepared text of his remarks.

"No government today can possibly hope to match the collective ingenuity, drive, and imagination of its people."

Conservative campaign pledged accountability

The Conservatives came to power in 2006 promising greater accountability in government, but have been criticized repeatedly for the stranglehold they place on information, especially when it comes to costing out their own initiatives.

They came under renewed attack recently over revelations by the auditor general that they didn't disclose the complete cost of the F-35 fighter jets.

Countries with open governments, open economies, and open societies will increasingly flourish, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference Tuesday.

"They will become more prosperous, healthier, more secure, and more peaceful," she said.

"By contrast, those governments that hide from public view and dismiss the idea of openness and the aspirations of their people for greater freedom will find it increasingly difficult to maintain peace and security."