New Brunswick·Opinion

Ed McGinley: Embracing open data in New Brunswick

Ed McGinley, the chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Information Technology Council, writes about the importance of open data in New Brunswick.

Governments must adapt to new the ways that citizens want to communicate or receive services

Ed McGinley, the chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Innovation Technology Council, says it is important for governments to adapt to the new ways citizens want their services delivered. (Shutterstock)

Every business knows its most important asset is the customer. Businesses are constantly polling them, listening to them and acting on their demands.

Modern government, successful government, is no different. 

Is it fair to say that a government’s most important asset is its citizen?

If it is, then for public policy to be relevant, respected and successful, the government and policy-makers must constantly be monitoring its customer/citizen.

Just like business, government change is driven when the customer (citizen) changes the way they wish to do business.

In today’s world of technology, the majority of customers and citizens and especially our youth are equipped with smartphones and other communication devices.

Our youth are the citizens and policy-makers of tomorrow. They have chosen to interact with each other through these devices.

Modern business has adapted to this communication method so they too can be part of the community. Their survival depends on meeting the customer’s expectation.

With state and local governments the question is the same, “How can government communicate and interact with the citizen."  The answer is clear and the business community has shown us the way.

Does government need to “drive” or influence any of the shift in how citizens interact with them? The answer is debatable, however it is likely no. 

Promoting change

As presented above, the change has already been started by the citizen. Simply put, government doesn’t need to drive this change, but it does need to “offer” it and then promote it. But first they need to offer it.

McGinley writes that governments are filled with talented civil servants, but much of their days are spent putting out "small fires." (CBC)
If the citizen asks for more streamlined and transparent access to government services, offer it to them and watch the catalytic energy unfold.

Among this collection of citizens, exist some of the most creative, energetic and thought-provoking resources you will ever meet. They are looking for ways to create new opportunities, new solutions to old problems.

They have fresh and vibrant ideas and perhaps more importantly, they have time to devote to work on these solutions.

Let me describe for you what I mean by work on solutions. 

Across this country and around the world, governments are filled with incredibly talented and passionate civil servants, bureaucrats, policy-makers and yes, elected politicians too.

Given the incredible challenge facing these individuals on a daily basis, close to 100 per cent of them are forced daily to focus on “keeping the lights on."

Their days are consumed with responding to “small fires” that need to be attended to every day. 

Add to this that many of them have precious little in their budget to pay for solutions, or plan for new systems and processes, well you get the picture. 

They are completely consumed with working in the system as opposed to working on the innovative ways to deliver services. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were resources to work on such things? 

I think they already exist right here in our own communities. We have colleges, universities, private sector businesses, students, start-up and accelerator programs that can benefit from access to the data.

Cultural shift needed

There is another group of stakeholders that can benefit from access to open data — other government departments.

During our first “Digital Society” gathering in July 2014, we offered up the Henry Ford statement, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” I would suggest we have reached a period in our evolution of government where we are ready for a cultural shift. 

A shift where government is no longer the sole responsibility of bureaucracy, but rather a recognized responsibility of the citizen in harmony with its bureaucracy and elected officials. 

Just like Ford, we need to pose the question to the people – “do you want a digital society?” The immediate answer will probably be “no."

However, if you ask them if they want better service, more security surrounding their information, more control of their own information and a more transparent government they will say yes. So how do we enable the “yes” to happen.

Back in 2003, IDC was commissioned by the government of New Brunswick to conduct a study on New Brunswick’s e-government initiatives.

Their report and the findings were inspiring and I think are worthy of reviving. We can use their independent observation to draw the comparison between what a government started then and what could be possible today and for our future.

Here is a snippet from the IDC report presented to the Microsoft World Government Conference in Seattle:

“Our study set out to identify and measure benefits of e-government to a jurisdiction and ended up reporting on the transformation of a society. The initiative has

  • Provided citizens and corporations alike with:   
    • Access to enhanced services and access to the services;
    • Time saved ;
    • An unprecedented level of satisfaction. And has ;
    • Created an opportunity for residents to be more fully engaged in the new economy.
  • Have demonstrated the best of public – private sector collaboration
  • Served to help transform the province

Imagine for a moment if you replaced the word “e-govenment” with “open data?"

A cultural shift will be enabled by innovation and a willingness to permit it to happen. That innovation lays not only in the digital tools and technology that is available today.

The innovation also exists when governments and citizens collaborate to creatively define and build new and enhanced access to government services. This citizen engagement is desperately needed.

The willingness to drive this change lays within two camps: the legislators/our government and citizens. 

Together, they we will redefine the conversation and they we will enable our aspirations.


Ed McGinley

Technology expert

Ed McGinley is the chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Innovation Technology Council.