In an effort to make government more accountable, a Montreal-based organization is challenging candidates running in the federal election to take the “I Believe in Open” pledge.
Created by the non-partisan VisibleGovernment.ca, the pledge challenges candidates to commit to five key improvements in government transparency.
These include making campaign promises measurable, publishing their MP schedule on the Internet, allowing free access to government scientific and survey data, and making it easier for Canadians to obtain government information.
“Few Canadians believe campaign promises, and even fewer know what their governments do on a day-to-day basis. Our goal is to open up government and let citizens see what their taxes are paying for,” said Jennifer Bell, executive director of VisibleGovernment.ca, in a news release.
The premise is that modernized computer systems and online tools will allow government to better incorporate transparency and accountability into their operations and give citizens a better idea of what’s happening inside their government.
The campaign website, ibelieveinopen.ca, is collecting pledges from MP candidates and signups from voters. The site also shows running totals of provinces and ridings where voters “Believe in Open.” Candidates are notified when the number of voter signups in their riding passes set levels, and voters are notified when candidates in their riding take the pledge.
As of October 7, 274 voters and 111 candidates across Canada have signed up, including 61 Green Party candidates, 39 New Democrats, and 11 Liberals.
“As the number of voters in a particular riding grows, it gives the candidates a little bit more incentive to sign up,” said Ms. Bell.
‘Transparency + Engagement = Democracy’
Ms. Bell’s inspiration came from the change-congress.org campaign in the U.S., a national movement pressing U.S. election candidates to commit to ending corruption in Congress and increasing congressional transparency.
Ms. Bell also pointed to U.S.-based Sunlight Foundation and U.K.-based mysociety.org as examples of other non-partisan, not-for-profit organizations that have created “very interesting, powerful [online] tools for citizen participation in government.”
“Having better information technology (IT) in government would benefit everyone,” she said. “[But] IT in government is typically underfunded and not a priority.”
In addition, not all public information is provided online, and data that is available online is often far from being user friendly.
To truly engage citizens, accountable and transparent government needs modern Internet tools and databases that present information to people in useful ways, such as in formats that are structured, flexible, and searchable.
VisibleGovernment.ca aims to “bring focus on that by creating tools outside of government that give a window on what’s happening inside, and provide incentive and visibility for [government] to modernize their IT systems,” Ms. Bell said.
Her group has two pilot projects underway, the first of which will consolidate the travel and hospitality expenses of government departments and officials into a standardized database. These expenses are currently published in flat tables across 124 different websites.
People will be able to make charts and draw pictures from the tables, and “you’ll be able to see a picture of what those numbers are about,” said Ms. Bell.
The second project will let people go online to request government information and then track the progress of their request through the government bureaucracy. The system will collect information on the number of requests filed and the time it takes to receive replies.
“Publishing the information makes government behave differently when they know that there’s going to be somebody looking at it,” she said.
On the VisibleGovernment.ca Advisory Board are experts on human-computer interfaces, public relations and communications, online knowledge sharing, and community building. These include Mozilla Foundation’s executive director Mark Surman and Rob Collins, a former CIO of Cognos and recent chair of Ottawa’s Mayor’s Task Force on E-Government.
‘Accountability Information System’ Needed
If the latest Leger Marketing survey is anything to go by, there is indeed a lot of room for improving public confidence in Canada’s civil servants and politicians.
Leger Marketing’s 2008 “profession barometer,” an annual survey of the most-trusted occupations in Canada, shows that “high public servants” have the trust of only 35 per cent of Canadians, down from 50 per cent over the previous two years.
Politicians fared even lower at 8 per cent, only 3 percentage points higher than used car salespeople, and down from 15 per cent in 2007.
Meanwhile, the Federal Accountability Act brought forward by the Conservative government in 2006 has faced a host of criticism for having loopholes and flaws.
“That program might be really good for providing a base for exposing information, but that last step hasn’t been crossed yet. To people on the outside the government is still a black box, so an accountability information system might just be a really good way to start to open it up,” said Ms. Bell.