Creating open and transparent government

Jamie Boyd

Jaimie Boyd is the Director of Open Government at the Government of Canada.  Open Government “creates greater transparency, accountability, increases citizen engagement, and drives innovation and economic opportunities through open data, open information, and open dialogue.”

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I was pretty committed to being the prime minister, a doctor, a lawyer, and an astronaut.

What did you end up becoming?

None of those things. I became a bureaucrat instead. I’m a pretty passionate bureaucrat though. I really do believe in the power of governments to make society more inclusive, to address public policies issues head-on.

What is social innovation?

In its kindest, most generous form, it’s leveraging collective wisdom for public good. It’s looking at the pretty vast resources, not just of wealth, but of human capital, of thinking, of passion, and putting that towards making our societies work more effectively — making our society happier, richer and just a better place to be.

What has your time in government taught you about the way systems change?

When I first came in, I remember thinking, “oh God, this organization is so huge and so slow.” Then I started thinking, “well it’s so huge and so slow, but it’s so conscientious.” But that risk-aversion is in some ways really warranted. We have the incredible privilege of getting to manage public wealth and public resources and I think that that privilege of getting to figure out how we spend tax dollars is incredibly important.

As I worked my way up through the ranks, I started understanding the system a little bit better. I started being less patient with it.  I think it is incumbent upon us as public servants to figure out a way to make optimal outcomes a reality. Sometimes we don’t help ourselves in that regard, I think. There are folks outside of government that are far more nimble than us, and far more agile. The good news is we’re increasingly attuned to the need to be nimble and agile, and we’re taking steps to get there. But there’s a pretty massive cultural transformation that’s still required. That’s a big part of the reason why I came to work on Open Government.

What is it like to be in the innovative part of a risk-averse entity?

That is something that we grapple with every single day. Because we’re the believers. We’re already convinced that open is better. A lot of us being effective in our jobs means that we have to almost be evangelists for Open Government.

I think that innovating within our organization rather than outside of it means that we have to be a bit more – well a lot more – scrupulous than we might have to be otherwise.

I feel like when we make the arguments in favour of being more open, transparent, and accountable, we can make a couple of different kinds of arguments. The ones that really resonate with the true believers are different from the ones that resonate with the skeptics.  When we go to talk to people who are already convinced, we can talk about the importance of deepening our democracy, of making sure that we’re leveraging the collective wealth, crowd-sourcing and co-creating, because it’s inherently good. That doesn’t work so well with the skeptics. With them, we have to say: “There is a genuine value added to you being more open, accountable, and transparent. If you leverage citizen views, if you engage more effectively, you’ll have better outcomes. You’ll deliver your policies or your programs in a more effective and higher-quality manner than if you didn’t engage.”

We run, which is the Government of Canada’s open government portal. We house all of Canada’s open datasets and open information holdings. Canada is actually one of the top countries in the world. So we’ve got about 80,000 open datasets and we’re ranked 2nd in the world on the Open Data Barometer. I believe that only the United States has more open data than we do at this point. So, it’s really an enterprise-wise undertaking. But getting to that place where we have that much open data, and that many open resources, is not without risk. We have to check everything in terms of privacy risks. We have pretty stringent requirements. We require the top information officer for each organization to sign off.

But hypothetically, there could be some tool that’s going to mash up these datasets in really crazy ways and they’re going to find trends that we weren’t aware of. I think that innovating within our organization rather than outside of it means that we have to be a bit more – well a lot more – scrupulous than we might have to be otherwise.

Can you give an example of an instance where Open Government innovated in an ideal way?

I’m going to give you a nerdy example that I’m very excited about. Our portal is run on open source software called CKAN.  As far as I know, ours is pretty much the only open source website that exists in the Government of Canada. It’s unbelievably powerful, because it means that we’re walking the open government talk. Everything that powers our server and our website is available on GitHub. That’s really cool because it means that we can also give back to the international community

We have this maxim internally to “advise furiously and implement loyally” and that’s how our democracy works, and how we can be effective as public servants.

When we first started, we had 11 departments — this was 2011 — and we had just a handful of datasets. We now have 55 departments and they’re all posting very regularly.

What’s the government role in the innovation ecosystem?

For me, it’s definitely as an enabler. I think for too long we’ve had this view that government is monolithic, we can do everything, we are the experts. There are lots of experts outside of our organization. We need to enable those people and those organizations to feed into policy decisions more effectively.  That’s the part that I see where government is uniquely well placed to lead.

What the ideal mindset of a civil servant? Can you characterize a little bit?

I am really excited about the honour of getting to work in government, to serve and to make our country better. We have this maxim internally to “advise furiously and implement loyally” and that’s how our democracy works, and how we can be effective as public servants. I agree with that,100%. At the same, we also need to implement loyally, and really consistently — to get it done, and really make sure that we’re being as effective as possible.

What’s it like being in a slow-moving large institution in light of all the fast-paced changes happening in the world today?

We’re one of the current government’s top priorities. We see every single one of the mandate letters to cabinet ministers talking about raising the bar on openness and transparency. I work at the Treasury Board where we’re under the President of the Treasury Board, who has a mandate to put more information and data out. We hear from our international colleagues that there’s a great deal of weight put on what Canada does at this juncture. In December, we were at the Open Government Partnership Summit. There are 75 member-countries and we’ve been a member since 2012. There, everybody was saying, “We’re really excited about Canada taking on a greater leadership role in this movement.”

That said, I’m not sure that everybody across the Government of Canada would share this view, particularly in some of the really large departments. We’ve seen a couple of things that speak to that frustration — the proliferation of innovation labs, for example. There are over 20 innovation labs in the city. It’s almost as if creating a lab is seen as an outcome in some cases. Creating a lab is not something to get excited about. That lab doing really cool things — that’s exciting!

What do you have going on in your circuitry or the way that you approach the world that leads you to do this kind of work?

I did my undergrad in economics and I remember game theory, and you see these positive sum games. Policy can definitely be a positive sum game for a lot of people. For all people, really. If you do it right. If you’re really conscientious and careful in the way you do it. I remember as a teenager trying to influence policy decisions. I was 18-19, and I remember the government was considering going into the Iraq war. I was pretty passionately opposed to that and I thought, okay well we’ll organize some people, we’ll see what we can do. I come from Victoria — not a huge town. We organized a bunch of protest marches. They started off with a couple of hundred people, and the last one — I think the official number was something like 12,000 people, marching in the streets of Victoria.

For a young person, that was incredibly motivating. We can make a difference. The ultimate decision was to not go into Iraq. It felt like we had had an impact. This was citizen engagement around public policy and it created value.

I would say that the majority of people in this organization that you have profound conversations with, at some point when they decided “I want to be a public servant,” it was at least partially motivated by the desire to do good.