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Opinion

The time is right: will Canada be a leader in ‘open government’?

By Aruna Roy, Suzanne Legault      

Canada’s leadership role at the Open Government Partnership is fairly limited. It is a government anchor on a working group dedicated to open data initiatives, but not involved in access to information. This is in spite of the fact that it is currently working towards amending the federal Access to Information Act in the context of open government.

Canada should be a leader with the multilateral group Open Government Partnership, says Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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At an international workshop on “Unpacking Participatory Democracy” held at McGill University last month, experts acknowledged that in these challenging times we need to learn lessons from democratic practice around the world to strengthen the current discourse on democracy.

In 2011, eight countries and an equal number of civil society organizations met to create a global initiative for greater transparency and accountability in systems of governance. From December 7 to 9, Paris will host the biannual summit of this expanding multilateral collaboration, called the “Open Government Partnership” (OGP). Membership in this partnership has now grown to 70 participating member countries, including Canada.

The value of such a unique multilateral initiative does not need to be argued today—we have a greater understanding of the importance of democratic governance and citizen participation as an essential pillar of democracy than ever before. Transparency and accountability are fundamental principles of any democracy. Without transparency, citizens are unable to scrutinize the actions of government and make informed decisions. Without accountability, governments are no longer responsible to the citizens who elected them.

The OGP has diligently evolved a minimum set of standards for transparency, accountability, participation, and consultation within an open government framework, where member countries decide on their reform strategies. The OGP also accepts and understands that civic space is essential for thoughtful deliberation, and meaningful citizen engagement on all issues of public concern.

Leaders and citizens working together in open government settings develop better decision-making frameworks and make better policy choices. Simple as these concepts may seem, they must be handled with maturity, confidence, and a genuine commitment to democratic values.

Significantly, OGP allows for countries to come together and share their experiences in democratic governance. This aspect of the OGP is especially valuable for those countries that are increasingly facing democratic and development challenges and could benefit from the lessons learned from those with more established democratic traditions.

This, we believe, is where Canada’s leadership role within the OGP can, and should, be leveraged much more.

Canada has more than 30 years of experience with transparency and accountability of government institutions, primarily through the legislative framework, and implementation of the Access to Information Act (which came into effect in 1983).

Canada has a robust history in information management and archiving, with its Public Archives Act, dating back to 1912. Today, the Library and Archives of Canada Act imposes record keeping obligations on public institutions, and is supported by a suite of policies and directives, all aimed at increasing their accountability. Canada scores high on all the core areas of OGP participation: access to information; open budget processes; disclosure of assets of public officials; consultative processes in the making of law and policy; and the sanctity provided to civic space. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement, and an opportunity to lead by example.

At present, Canada’s leadership role at the OGP is fairly limited. It is a government anchor on a working group dedicated to open data initiatives, but not involved in access to information. This is in spite of the fact that it is currently working towards amending the federal Access to Information Act in the context of open government. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the helm, Canada should bid to be on the OGP Steering Committee, and at the forefront of the global movement on open government.

The OGP is a nascent and unique international partnership. It provides an opportunity for members to meet as equals and build strategies. It is instrumental in preventing the spirit of democracy from being extinguished. The OGP needs real political leadership from nations like Canada who have articulated a commitment to transparency and accountability, and who see open governance as a means to that end.

The question is: will Canada step up and take the initiative to be a global leader in Open Government? The answer will become clear in Paris.

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