Open Government and Public Feedback

In this day and age, there are a variety of different platforms available for people to express themselves. Outlets like social media give us the power to publicly express our opinions. Just about anyone can make a Twitter profile and tweet about what they are content or discontent with that day. These outlets are used every day by millions of people to share advice, suggestions, and concerns. But the questions are, where does that data go, and does it ever get used? And with an open government, should we hold institutions accountable to use this public feedback to better themselves?

One of the most important aspects of open government is civic engagement. Citizens having the ability to access and engage with the government and its data is a necessity. It is one thing to make the data public, but another to make it accessible to all and open for feedback. Gavin Newsom and Zachary Bookman state that it is the responsibility of the government to both publish information in “machine-readable” format and give people the tools to understand and act on it. When that is accomplished, it allows them to better serve their communities and builds trust with citizens. Trust between citizens and their government is extremely important for a well-functioning, democratic society. Robert Putnam, an American political scientist, came up with the metaphor of “bowling alone.” Used to describe people who participate in activities alone instead of in a group, this leads to the decline of community and social capital. This metaphor can be taken one step further accurately applied to open government and civic engagement. If a government does not allow for civic engagement, they would be bowling alone. They are missing out on the opportunity to build community and trust.

The Ontario government’s Open Data Directive initiative is an interesting case study of a government that actually published a draft of its project data and welcomed public feedback. This case study is quite pertinent because it gave the public the option to give feedback on open data. Cases like this one are important because open data reflects directly on the lives of the people. It is important for citizens to understand and comprehend the open data provided, or else it serves no point. The Open Data Directive is an initiative that requires all data to be made public, with the exception of data that for privacy, security or confidentiality reasons cannot be shared publicly. The directive gives guidelines that must followed when the data is published.

When the Ontario government was creating this directive, they released a draft copy, intended to collect feedback from the public from May 1st to July 1st, 2015. The government engaged with Ontarians on social media, in person at a variety of events and sessions, as well as through an outreach team focusing on academic and other institutions. They received an incredible amount of feedback with over 3000 online views; they received 500 mentions on social media and 200 comments via Google and email. They received feedback over a variety of topics like privacy, implementation, clarity and timing. One common theme that emerged within the feedback was that some terms used could be described in more depth in order to assure consistency of interpretation. Another suggestion that was given was to analyse compliance with the directive, which could help measure progress and ensure data is released in a timely manner.

By opening this up to the public, the government encouraged transparency. It demonstrated that the Ontario government was open and responsive to feedback. The feedback was not only used to better the directive, but allowed real input from those who were going to benefit from it. In addition, it also encouraged accountability and prompted innovation: the public expected that their input would be taken into consideration when they were making changes. On the other side, it also holds society accountable. Ontario was the first province to engage the public with the opportunity to improve their access to data. Cases like this should be a more common reality. For a truly open government, it should be the norm.  

Authors: Victoria Barker