Lenihan: Fixing our broken politics

Fixing government means making it Open by Default

by Don Lenihan. Posted March 31, 2015


Originally posted on National Newswatch (available here)


Is politics broken? Yes, but we also know how to fix it. Through the ages, politics has been broken many times, yet people have risen to the challenge. The question now is whether we will do so again. Let’s start with a few examples before turning to the solution.

When King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, he was under pressure from the barons, who felt politics was broken. To fix it, the king had to agree that even he was not above the law. The Rule of Law has since become the rock on which our political system rests.

Or consider the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century. They were based on the idea that the source of government’s authority was not the king, but the people. The principle of the Sovereignty of the People rallied the people behind democracy.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed the New Deal, where government took on a new responsibility to provide relief and jobs for the unemployed. Today, the principle of Equality of Opportunity underpins a vast array of social programs, such as social assistance, education, unemployment insurance and healthcare.

These three periods were marked by profound social changes that made the political system of the day obsolete: politics was broken and it had to be fixed. In each case, the solution came through a new principle that placed new limits or responsibilities on the leaders.

History is at another turning point. The rise of digital technology has changed our society, vastly increasing the speed, complexity and interdependence of events; and turning the system of nation states into a global village. Huge amounts of data and information on everything imaginable—health, weather, traffic, trade, finances—are streaming through cyberspace.

The tools to organize and “scrape” this data are evolving daily. Statistics Canada reports that it can now get all the information it needs for the census by scraping 500 government databases, and at a fraction of the cost. Within a decade the census will be gone.

This is a sign of things to come. If content is now pouring from cyberspace like an open faucet, soon it will be gushing like a firehose. New “smart” devices of all kinds are getting plugged into the internet, from cars to lightbulbs.

By 2020, over 50 billion devices will be pulsing out data on their surroundings and their users. New artificial intelligence systems will supercharge the capacity to scrape, organize and use this data, radically advancing our knowledge of DNA, nanotechnology, the environment, the global economy, security, transportation, and so on.

This capacity to integrate Big Data from a range of sources marks the beginning of a new era in human knowledge. It could also vastly improve policymaking, if we use the data well. And that brings us to politics.

Last week, Samara Canada released its Democracy 360 report on the state of democracy at the federal level. Among other findings, fully 60% of Canadians now think MPs only want their vote, and only 40% of us trust them to do what is right. Another 39% say they haven’t had a single political conversation in the last year.

No one should be surprised. This is the logical result of a trend that began centralizing power in the Prime Minister’s Office under Pierre Trudeau. Today, the policy process is run out of the PMO. It is utterly lacking in transparency and parliament has been reduced to little more than a shell.

Of course people are cynical. They know where the real decisions are made and that public debate over them is a facade. That is why politics is broken and needs to be fixed. But how? As with the other examples from history, we need a principled way to reverse this trend.

There is a new principle that I believe can do this. It is called Open by Default and was formulated by the Open Government movement to guide governments around the world as they transform themselves for the digital age.

The principle turns conventional government thinking about data and information upside down. It declares that in the digital age they must be defined as a public asset. The role of governments is to act as stewards of this resource, rather than owners of it who are free to use it as they wish.

Under this principle, these assets must be openly available to the public, unless legitimate concerns, such as security or privacy, dictate otherwise. When they do, the rationale for confidentiality must be given and proper oversight ensured.

According to the Treasury Board Secretariat website, the Harper government now accepts this principle. I’ll return to this below. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also endorses Open by Default in his Private Members Bill on freedom of information.

But Open by Default is about more than data and information. It also applies to the dialogue and debate that is needed to put this asset to work in the service of better policymaking.

For example, it we want to map the issues around a community’s health needs, we must combine data on a range of factors, such as the environment, food consumption, education, exercise, income, cultural background, and so on.

This transforms the usual two-dimensional picture of a policy issue into a dynamic, three-dimensional model. Different combinations of factors produce different models and may lead to different conclusions.

Arriving at the best policies to solve issues on the environment, poverty, pipelines or national security thus is not simply science. Evidence-based decision-making is about exploring these options to make the choices that best meet our needs and aspirations as a community. It is a democratic exercise based on dialogue and debate that is open, informed, fair and inclusive.

So here is the deep question Open by Default raises for democratic process: Will this new approach to policymaking be conducted openly, with MPs, experts, officials and the public involved? Or carried out in secret by a coterie of analysts and then “sold” to the public?

This question has moved from pressing to urgent. For two decades, the public service has been building a vast new network of digital infrastructure to handle Big Data. Notwithstanding its alleged commitment to the principle of Open by Default, the Harper government has signaled its willingness to use its power to bring this infrastructure under its control.

Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, will establish a massive new information-sharing regime to improve security, yet the government appears unwilling even to listen to arguments about new forms of oversight to monitor how the data is being used. For those who thought centralization couldn’t go any further, it has apparently entered a whole new phase.

The only way to fix politics is to reverse this centralizing trend. This will take a range of major reforms, both to parliament and the public service. And there will be cries and claims about the damage they will do to our system of government. Every age has its apologists for the status quo.

But to succeed, first and foremost, reformers must unite behind a single, clear and powerful idea of the kind of change we want to bring to our governments and why. That idea should be to put an end to government secrecy and to establish a new age of openness and evidence-based decision-making. It should be to make our governments Open by Default.