Open Government is a concept. It’s a view into government. It’s an invitation to stakeholders, citizens and civil society to help shape government decisions and actions. It is not a program or policy, yet both can be part of achieving the vision of a government that encourages civic participation, invites accountability and demonstrates transparency. Examples of open government include proactively disclosing financial and human resources-related information online and publishing expenditures that can be displayed visually or as machine-readable charts. These measures are intended to strengthen public sector management.
From my place within the public service, I see opening government as a verb. To me, it’s what we are doing to create opportunities for people – wherever they work or reside – to contribute to the activities that go into governing so that the country reflects the values of those who live in it. Engaging citizens and stakeholders in the context of policy shaping builds trust, seeks others’ perspectives, enables accountability, and allows us to collectively design better policy, programs and services.
What is engagement in the context of public policy?
Engagement processes can be structured and formal like parliamentary committees to study an issue or those that allow for anyone to provide feedback on legislation as it moves through Parliament. They can be done by elected officials or by public servants working on their behalf, for example, through processes that invite stakeholders to comment on proposed regulatory or legislative changes. They can be informal, like hosting conversations online. They can be open and transparent, moderated or unmoderated, multilateral or bilateral. There are many options, yet deciding which methods to employ at the right time can be cloaked in complexity, with much at risk if we get it wrong. So how can we teach “engagement” as a mechanism to improve policy-shaping?
Canada Beyond 150 is a participatory learning program for public servants to experience new ways of developing and delivering public policy. I was excited to learn that engagement, along with design and foresight, was one of the three pillars of the program. My team had mapped some of the system-wide gaps that needed to be filled in order to build the organizational muscle required to engage broadly; this was our chance to understand how to support new public servants through change.
The insights we have gleaned from working with participants have helped us understand individual level barriers – fear of saying the wrong thing or being perceived as not knowing enough about the topic. There are myths around the policy making process still to be exposed and debunked. One thing we find ourselves saying more frequently is “engage with others to understand the problem; not just to figure out the solution!”.
We remind people to engage with people who have lived experience, as well as with academics and professionals working in the field. We tell them that this is an opportunity to leverage collective intelligence to tackle public policy challenges.
Supporting meaningful engagement: what needs to change?
One outcome of opening up government could be that when people understand the policy process they can contribute their time, energy, ideas and resources into it too. Together, people from across sectors, geographic locations and other boundaries can co-create the society within which we want to live.
For this to be possible requires that elected officials communicate priorities clearly while public servants make their work visible to those who want to be involved. These elements allow for other sectors to align to these priorities and work with government towards achieving shared societal outcomes if they so choose. By opening government, we provide greater access to Canadians to influence change in a way that is reflective of the values of those who live here.
Aligning resources to priorities
Elected officials communicate priorities at the beginning of a mandate through the Speech from the Throne, annually through the Budget and Fiscal Economic Update and regularly through announcements, web content, tweets and media interviews.
In 2016, the Prime Minister published mandate letters that he had sent to each Cabinet Minister stating the priorities pertaining to their portfolio. This was the first time these letters were made publicly available. In these letters, he also made it clear how these priorities should be achieved. Public servants and the public are therefore better able to align their activities to these priorities.
Making the invisible, visible
People who work inside government serve ministers who are elected by voters to represent their values and interests. Public servants are stewards of good governance – gathering evidence from a variety of sources, synthesizing inputs and developing options for elected decision-makers.
Making the invisible visible means communicating the context and constraints surrounding the policy topic so that others can see it. Meaningful engagement requires that we remain open to good ideas, engaging to discover how others experience the topic at hand, rather than to validate what we think we already know. Good policy starts with listening and observing.
The opportunity presented by increased access to digital tools and social media is that good ideas can come from anywhere; information can be discoverable by anyone and conversations can scale. People can feed into understanding complex problems and partnerships can amplify the impact of proposed solutions.
At a time when trust in public institutions is declining globally and polarization is increasing in many countries, it seems wise to re-envision how people work together for the public good. The current system is failing too many people. At this point I’ll turn it over to you, dear reader, do we need to re-envision the way government operates and if so, how could this look?