Towards open government: open information, data, and dialogue

fileHRM residents deserve a government that is transparent, open, accountable and respectful of citizens’ right to kn ow.

The last few years have been painful for residents . Council has bounced from crisis to crisis, often behind a cloak of secrecy and in camera meetings.

But what do we mean when we say “open government”? Open Government typically encompasses three concepts: Open Information, Open Data, and Open Dialogue.Open Information means having all the information needed to understand and scrutinize government. Open Data means allowing us to look beneath reports to gain a deeper understanding. This prevents selective and preferential reporting from being acceptable. Open Dialogue means providing an easily accessible forum to communicate with decision-makers.

It is clear we have room for improvement in HRM in all three areas. I believe the three most pressing reforms are: sunshine laws, open data, and freedom of information.

Sunshine laws have been talked about a lot during this election. A sunshine law is a collection of rules that require open public meetings with adequate notice provided sothat the public can prepare.

Ontario has a provincial law that requires municipalities to be open. That province created a provincial ombudsman to investigate and penalize municipalities that abuse openness.

Open data is a movement that has swept across Canada, where municipalities make all available data sets open to the public. The simple principle here is that our tax dollars paid for this data and we deserve access to it. Also, there is great potential for capitalization on this valuable data by entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations, and other interested citizens that is currently not being realized.

In Halifax, private suppliers have been contracted to collect, compile and house data to “save the city money”. These arrangements ensure that private firms are able to profit from data that was paid for with your tax dollars, effectively meaning you are paying twice for access. It is only right that data generated with public dollars is available to citizens for free.

Freedom of Information, or FOI, has been around for a while. Nova Scotia only got an FOI act under the Savage government in the 1990s. Despite the Act, response time is sometimes very slow, and there is not yet a requirement that documents that were FOIed be made public for all, meaning that sometimes a document might beaccessed under the Act by many people, many times; creating unnecessary costs and duress.

Minutes from secret in camera meetings are never declassified, even after the item discussed in secret has been resolved in public. Contracts with P3 suppliers are kept secret, keeping the public from evaluating whether the contract really is a good deal for HRM, and a better deal than the public delivery option.

HRM should ask the Province to establish a Municipal Ombudsperson, structured like the Auditor General’s office, who reports directly to Council and will act as an impartial investigator of residents’ complaints about the administration of city government. It is clear that the current system does not have the appropriate checks and balances to ensure policies and procedures are followed.

An open and transparent government would go a long way to restoring the public’s trust in our tattered and discredited regional council.

NOTE: Here is an example of a leading open data policy (Toronto)