Electronic tools such as wikis, Web sites and social networks can help make government more open, and more open government not only is better government, but could sometimes save lives, said speakers at a panel discussion during the Taking Stock of Tech: Reflections on Law, Technology and Society conference in Ottawa.
But speakers also pointed out that openness and e-government proceed by small steps, sometimes with setbacks.
“This is not about the technology,” said David Eaves, a public policy consultant, fellow at the Centre for Study of Democracy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and an adviser to the city of Vancouver on its open government initiatives. “We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. It’s actually about control and about culture.”
Eaves said e-government pundits and futurists like to talk about crowdsourcing – drawing on the wisdom of many citizens rather than relying purely on politicians and bureaucrats. It may sound new, he said, but, in fact, the 911 emergency service is crowdsourcing. People call and tell emergency services when they need help. And the 911 service is a good example of when citizen input works best, said Eaves. It asks for a specific kind of information, it’s easy to use and there’s a real benefit to everyone involved.
While 911 saves lives, lack of openness may cost lives. Last year’s brush fires in Australia are an example, according to Brian Fitzgerald, a law professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.
Addressing the panel in a prerecorded video, Fitzgerald said Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) tried to obtain a live feed of information on fire locations from the government, but was stymied because the information was subject to Crown copyright. A number of people died, he said, and better access to information might have prevented some deaths.
Like Australia’s, Canadian law includes Crown copyright giving the government control over information it produces. Most countries have a similar concept, Fitzgerald said, one noticeable exception being the United States.
That doesn’t guarantee openness, but another panellist, Daniel Schuman, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, outlined how the U.S. federal government has become more open under President Barack Obama.
The present government’s initiatives include requiring government departments to solicit ideas from the public on how they can be more transparent, and to create specific Web pages dealing with openness. Found at addresses like www.treasury.gov/open, these pages describe information the departments have made public and report on their openness initiatives.
The White House has also made its meeting log publicly available, so anyone can see who is talking to top officials.
Eaves said governments can work with the private sector to make government information useful online. One example is vantrash.ca, a privately run online service that uses City of Vancouver data to remind subscribers of Vancouver’s ever-changing garbage days.
“Innovation can take place not only in government and the private sector simultaneously,” he said, “but most importantly, on top of government.”
But Eaves said resistance to openness is a problem, particularly in legal departments. He said contracts and usage agreements that “scream ‘go away’” risk frightening citizens away from open government initiatives. And he criticized a tendency to decide what is possible based on whether another jurisdiction has done it. “Someone’s got to lead,” he said.