Open Dialogue: A Q&A

Open Dialogue
Next week, Canada 2020 is co-hosting the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum in Ottawa – a conference that will see hundreds of policy, business and thought leaders come together to talk about how to make our policy process more open, accessible and transparent.
In advance of next week’s Forum, I sat down with Don Lenihan, our resident-expert on open dialogue to ask some basic questions about the concept of open dialogue, open government and what it means for the future of policymaking in Canada.


Hi Don. I guess the best place to begin is with the basics – what is Open Dialogue, and what does it have to do with government?

The terms “public engagement” and “open dialogue” can be used interchangeably. They refer to formal processes by which governments involve individuals, communities and/or organizations in government planning, policymaking or the delivery of public services.
While governments have always had such processes, over the last few decades new forms have been proposed and tested, which aim at involving the public more deeply in issues of concern. Digital tools are taking this to a new level. Knowing which processes and tools to use where and when, or how to design an effective engagement process, can be difficult and confusing. A key challenge going forward will be to develop the knowledge and skills to match the right process with the right issues and to design and deliver processes that are effective.

So there are some governments already using public engagement to create policies collaboratively. I presume this is met with varying levels of success. Who is doing Open Dialogue well?

Internationally, the UK is a leader in Open Dialogue through its Open Policy Making initiative. Open policy making is about using collaborative approaches to ensure policy is informed by a wide range of input and expertise and leads to better outcome. Open policy making also involves applying new analytical techniques and digital tools to ensure that policy is data-driven and evidence-based.
Here in Canada, Ontario has been an innovator in Open Dialogue. Ontario’s condominium sector provides a timely example. Over the last decade, it has undergone remarkable growth and change. As the sector expanded, so did the range and complexity of the issues around condo ownership and management.
In response, Ontario recently carried out an 18-month public-engagement process to renew the Condominium Act. Over two thousand people were involved. At first, the discussion was fraught with disagreement, but once people saw that the process was open, inclusive and fair, and that their government had entrusted them with an important mission, they got down to work.
They listened carefully to one another and worked to accommodate their differences. Everyone made compromises. No one got everything they wanted. In the end, there was very significant agreement on some 40 pages of recommendations, which were then incorporated into a bill that was passed into law last spring.
The Government of BC provides an example of a leader in the use of online tools. Its recent Liquor Policy Review attracted over 75 thousand British Columbians to its website. Thousands more provided comments through an online blog, email and social media.

Collaborative policymaking is a new concept. What’s the biggest challenge Open Dialogue faces? What stands in the way of Open Dialogue growing in popularity?

Perhaps this biggest barrier to progress on Open Dialogue is fear and misunderstanding. Some people inside and outside government worry that Open Dialogue means losing control of the discourse – that they are handing over control of their agenda over to interest groups. There is sometimes a fear that the “dialogue” will quickly degenerate into a free-for-all that paralyzes decision-making or saddles the government with bad policies. They still need to be convinced of the value of public engagement.
In fact, a growing body of evidence shows how and why well-designed dialogue processes can make a significant contribution to policymaking and the delivery of public services. They can help ensure legitimacy by increasing transparency, responsiveness and inclusiveness. They can also increase effectiveness by bringing the right mix of people, skills and resources into the policy process to ensure the best decisions are made, validated and implemented.

A lot of people think ‘Open Data’ when they  hear ‘Open Dialogue.’ I know Open Data is part of this process, how does it fit into it?

Open Data uses digital tools to make a government’s data holdings available to the public to support evidence-based decision-making. Open Dialogue involves citizens and stakeholders more directly in planning and decision-making, especially through the use of digital tools.
When it comes to evidence-based decision-making, these two processes are two sides of the same coin. On one hand, data can guide and inform discussion, debate and decision-making. Without evidence, decision-making is thrown back on anecdotes and speculation.
At the same time, dialogue is essential to the interpretation of data and to making the best choice of which datasets will shed light on an issue. Open Dialogue thus brings a mix of voices to these tasks to ensure that the interpretation and choice of datasets is balanced.

Canada 2020 and Publivate are co-hosting the Open Dialogue Forum on March 31 to April 1. What do you think will be their biggest takeaway from this event?

I think people will see great ways to make open dialogue work and how it can create policies that are good for multiple stakeholders. Open 2016 draws on examples and experiences from Canada and abroad to show how and why well-designed dialogue processes can make a significant contribution to policymaking and the delivery of public services.

Register for the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum 2016 here