Yesterday, Treasury Board President and Member of Parliament Honorable Tony Clement spoke yesterday about Open government, open data and and open dialogue at a Third Tuesday event in Ottawa. This page has a great summary of the event.
Clement is very knowledgeable about innovation, technology and open government, and certainly demonstrated it. He underlined the importance of having a “productive, efficient and responsive public service, to deliver services with less resources” like using collaborative tools. These are words I can support! “The greater risk is to ignore it. We have to manage the risks, but the greatest risk is standing still.” Clement made mentions of the irony of some public servants being able to do more at Starbucks than at their desks. Although what isn’t clear is whether he is aware that public servants can be found doing actual work work at Starbucks because it can be impossible at their desk.
Sure, this is a lofty goal, and things take time. What has worried me for several years is that the government may be going in the opposite direction, which I will argue is worse than standing still. As society gets more complex, demands from citizenry get more pressing, and technology advances, here is a government that in practice is further blocking access of public servants to the internet. Unless public servants work harder and longer hours and miraculously more talented, they are becoming less productive, inefficient and certainly less responsive to the public, as access to the information and the tools to do their job becomes harder and even impossible.
I decided to ask Hon. Tony Clement about it. Paraphrased, here is the question I asked:
“I’m glad you mentioned you support a more productive and efficient public service. Of course we know alot of hard-working creative public servants, but increasingly they have to work harder and harder and be more creative with their work to get around blocked internet. I’m glad you pointed out how the new guidelines for the external use of social media support public servants’ use of social media, however before we had them we had more access to the net, and now that we have them we have more blocked internet. I’m interested to know if this trend is going to continue. I’d like to know what advice you have for public servants who want to support your endeavours with Open Government, who want to be more productive and efficient in their work to support Canadians.”
How I could’ve asked the question more honestly:
“How can public servants support you in your endeavours for Open Government if they have blocked access to the net? At my organisation, even the webpage promoting this event was blocked, as are tweets about it. Is it not a slap in the face to public servants who want to do better work to support the public and their ministers are blocked from accessing the very information they need to do their job?”
Unfortunately Clement’s answer wasn’t substantial. I paraphrase again:
“Now that we’ve got a report on how to implement Open Government, it’s still very early. My personal thinking is that the consequences need to be weeded out. We’ll ask staff for process, what the learning is and review.”
That’s quite a non-answer, a very typical “we’re managing it and will manage it further” kind of answer. His answer actually gets me more worried. Not only did he not answer the question (there’s no advice!), but there may be more troublesome times ahead. Will the internet be further blocked? Will more public servants have their internet blocked? Is Starbucks wi-fi going to need locations in government towers? Does Clement see Open Government as an engagement for only the public, not public servants?
I don’t know. And I don’t think I’ll be able to ask him the same question again and expect an answer. All the same, I appreciate the talk.
He did close with an interesting word:
“Reasonable people can disagree, but reasonable people can also change opinions”.
Mind you, there he was talking in defense of the scrapping of the long-form census.
More on what I’ve desperately written about Internet blocking: