Open government push requires ‘cultural shift’ in public service, federal documents warn

Sound analysis of the challenge:

The Liberals’ promise to pry open government requires nothing less than “cultural change” within the public service, warn documents obtained by the Star.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison was told in November that there are significant hurdles to the Liberals’ campaign pledge to reform access to information laws, make government information open by default, and more effectively communicate with the public.

Documents prepared for Brison describe a federal culture of “limited disclosure, insular policy making,” which takes into account the “federal view only.”

To implement the Liberals’ ambitious democratic reform agenda, that culture will need to shift to one of “proactive release, engagement and connectivity, (and) broad leadership on open government.”

It’s not clear exactly how the government intends to change the culture of some 257,000 employees in the core public service. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already made clear he wants to end the era of the federal government deciding and acting on issues unilaterally, putting an emphasis on meeting with provincial premiers and, on Friday, the mayors of Canada’s largest cities.

“The government holds a largely untapped wealth of mostly unclassified information of interest to Canadians,” read the documents, obtained under access to information laws. “This information is not sufficiently leveraged to fuel the digital economy, spur innovation, and give Canadian business a competitive edge.”

Trudeau made openness and accountability a key plank in his party’s election platform. The idea is to make government information “open by default,” unlike the current system where citizens need to resort to access to information requests that can take months or even years to process.

But releasing more information about government operations, the documents warn, carries with it the risk of public relations headaches for the new government.

In an interview Tuesday, Brison acknowledged that risk.

“(But) you can’t expect Canadians to trust us if we can’t trust them,” Brison said.

“The other thing to keep in mind is we will make better decisions when we engage Canadians in the decision-making process. The old days where governments would be covetous and secretive (with) information to try and make a decision because government thought they were smarter than citizens, are over.”

When it comes to changing the public services culture, Brison suggested the Liberals need to lead by example – and the leadership starts with the prime minister.

“(Trudeau) is absolutely committed to this throughout government,” Brison said.

“For most Canadians, the transparency bus has left the station. You try to explain to a millennial why a lot of this information isn’t rendered public, and you lose them.”

But it’s not just the culture of secrecy and risk aversion preventing information from getting to Canadians. The documents note Canada’s dated privacy and access to information acts are falling out of sync with technological development.

The Access to Information Act, for instance, has not been substantially changed since the early 1980s when most government business was conducted on paper.

Source: Open government push requires ‘cultural shift’ in public service, federal documents warn | Toronto Star

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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