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Open Government in Urban Communities

December 1, 2016 - Kayla Oishi, Analyst

As a city, town, village or municipality, there is a distinct responsibility laid out in various laws to be transparent, open and accountable.  Cities, towns, villages and municipalities are local authorities for purposes of LA FOIP.  Some local authorities are working to meet those duties through open government initiatives.

What is Open Government?

Open government is the belief that citizens have the right to request access to the records of local authorities. It aims to make cities, towns and villages more transparent and accountable, while improving services and enabling the public to stay informed. Three terms are used to describe the key aspects of open government:

  1. Open Data
  2. Open Information
  3. Open Engagement

Open Data is the proactive release of local authority data through “self-serve” portals (i.e. city websites) that makes information available to download and view in different formats. Open data allows citizens to do their own analysis of the data provided; such as city boundaries, agreements and contracts, bylaws, financial documents, etc.

Open Information is the proactive release of internal records that are likely to be of interest to the general public; this could include information that has recently been requested through the freedom of information process and released and are deemed to have broader value to the general public.  The difference between open data and open information is the format of the information involved.  Open data would include information that is raw and unorganized, whereas open information is information that is processed and organized, such as an analysis of information that reveals context.  Both are meant to make local authority records more accessible.

Section 91 of The Cities Act and 117 of The Municipalities Act both state that any person is entitled to inspect or obtain copies of contracts approved by council, bylaws, financial statements of the city/municipality, meeting minutes, etc.  By proactively disclosing these records, it can save citizens – as well as the city or municipality – time in requesting the information.

Open Engagement is connecting with the general public through tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to provide up to date information, and to give the public the ability to interact with their city, town, or municipality.

What are Communities in Saskatchewan Doing?

If you take a look at your local government website, you may be able to see the different ways in which local authorities are trying to become more open and accessible to its citizens. Let’s consider the City of Saskatoon; the City’s website is extremely easy to navigate, and has various tabs with drop down menus linking to information such as business statistics, strategic plans, freedom of information, city council agendas and minutes, city bylaws, etc. One of the most significant aspects of the website is the performance dashboard which is a tool that shows the City’s progress towards 25 targets for their 10-year strategic plan. The dashboard gives citizens a look at how the city is doing in reaching its goals.

What Can Your Local Government Do?

Open government is an extremely significant, beneficial initiative for everyone involved; local authorities, citizens and businesses. It helps create economic opportunities, promotes integrity and accountability and gives the public a stronger voice. So, what can your local government do to embrace this initiative?

  1. Learn from Others: Take a look at other jurisdictions; what are they doing? Collaborating with other jurisdictions can help you to anticipate challenges and prepare solutions, as well as learn from the mistakes of others. There are many resources available from various governments and local authorities that outline open government initiatives that after which you can model your practices.
  2. Engagement: Keep the public engaged, and have internal discussions to increase awareness and garner support. Make sure that the information being shared with the public is relevant to the public and timely. Use tools such as social media, feedback forms and surveys to determine if you are meeting the needs of the public and to increase engagement.
  3. Make Plans: Prioritize the open government initiative according to the needs of the community and your organization. Keep in mind the ongoing cost and resource requirements and make an effective plan that is sustainable and realistic.
  4. Don’t Do Everything at Once: As stated above, prioritize the open government initiative into phases, so as not to stretch your budget or your staff. Start small, and then go bigger to minimize the risk of failure. Have defined roles and responsibilities within the institution so that there can be continuous improvement to the program.
  5. Know the Legal Requirements: Government institutions and local authorities are subject to one or more of the following provincial access and privacy laws: The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP), The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LA FOIP) and The Health Information Protection Act (HIPA).  It is important to understand these laws and others and how they pertain to your institution in relation to freedom of information, privacy protection, intellectual property, etc.  Having staff who are knowledgeable in the above laws is key to reaching your goals under an open government initiative.
  6. Stick to It: Open government is not a “project”; it is an ongoing commitment. Ensure that all staff are aware and supportive of this initiative. Training staff in the organization’s priorities, services, processes, etc. is important to keep things running smoothly. Monitor and evaluate your progress, and relay that progress to the public to enhance openness and accountability.

It is hopeful that cities, towns and villages embrace the concept of open government and take steps to make their local government more transparent. In doing so, they may find that their ratepayers welcome the change!

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