Last week FutureGov was in Canada, working with the City of Edmonton for our first North American conference (and certainly not our last). As is typical with our events, we had a lot of speakers and delegates fly in from overseas - and City of Edmonton organised a great welcome for this international crowd to meet informally with their Canadian counterparts.
We were taken just outside the city to Fort Edmonton Park, a showcase of the development of Edmonton over the last couple of centuries. Many historic buildings have been lovingly preserved, including the oldest mosque in Canada dating from 1836.
It turns out that the mosque was built with funds from the Jewish community, and for me it underlined both the longstanding relationship between Islam and Judaism - and the current inability of both sides to reach an accommodation in Palestine/Israel. Why can’t we all just get along? I thought to myself.
Over the course of the next couple of days we had a great series of conversations between our Asian delegates and speakers and their North American counterparts. It was a real ‘East-meets-West’ experience, set against the backdrop of an Albertan summer. The issues that governments deal with are the same - and this common ground proved to be a fertile source of ideas.
We had the usual series of ‘Interactive Discussion Tables’, each hosting small-group conversations on a different topic - such as citizen engagement, mobile government, information security and big data. But the panel discussions I ran, and the questions from the floor, highlighted the challenge of getting different government units to talk with one another, and to talk with citizens. In other words - Why can’t we all just get along?
In part this is because of where government has come from - the clue is in the word ‘government’ itself. Public sector bodies are organised around the principle of governance. To deemphasise this in order to move to ‘Open Government’ is something that requires political cover. And frankly few politicians spring out of bed in the morning and declare that they must ‘do Open Government’.
Both Edmonton and the province of Alberta are pretty forward-looking jurisdictions in their approach to open government, which is one of the key reasons why we chose Edmonton as the venue of our first North American event. But even here getting government to switch to openness by default has proven to be easier said than done, something explained in an engagingly frank way by Minister Manmeet Bhullar, of Service Alberta. Dollars, control and risk, he suggested, were the three key obstacles to Open Government.
“There isn’t a government in the world that has the will to write blank cheques for key projects. Legislators around the world have seen estimates for projects that don’t work out - and they have now bought in to the stereotype that no IT project runs according to budget, or is delivered on time. This results in politicians questioning why they would ever want to sign off on big projects that will massively overrun. I challenge you as a community of thinkers and doers to bring more certainty to technology projects.”
Minister Bhullar continued by observing that few departments were ever willing to give up any kind of control, and that civil servants tended to strongly influence ministers in the direction of ‘no surrender’. Recent attempts to shift government in Alberta to using Gmail were cited as a case in point.
Finally there is the simple fear of criticism. The IT industry may have accepted that perfection is not possible, and that rapid prototyping, perpetual beta and agile software development leads to advancement. But politicians and policy makers still expect perfection.
“The fact is, you can introduce an app today, and someone will go on TV and say ‘they want to get rid of workers’. Then maybe the unions will say ‘they want to bash the unions’. Then there might be a small glitch - and so what should have been celebrated as a policy innovation becomes a failure. People are waiting for perfection,” said Minister Bhullar. “So there is a massive cultural shift that needs to take place, and until that happens this fear of criticism will continue to paralyse government.”
Alberta requires all executive managers in the public sector, not just elected officials, to post their full expenses (with receipts) in a machine-readable format for citizens to access. It’s the gold standard of public disclosure in Canada - and it took courage to be willing to engage citizens on the minutiae of public spending (Ie. ‘Why did you buy a coffee at Starbucks rather than homegrown chain Tim Hortons?’).
The only true freedom comes as a result of courage, as Thucydides noted 2500 years ago; for civil servants to cede control and embrace collaboration - with citizens, businesses as well as one another - requires courage.
“The accountability and transparency dimensions of Open Government are essential in a modern democracy - citizens need to be empowered with the right tools to hold politicians to account,” says Minister Bhullar. “If we are paralysed by fear of criticism there will be no progress.”
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