Capstone Project for MBA – Machine-Readable Financial Statements

In my final Capstone project for my MBA, I’ve been trying to get a few municipal governments in Western Canada to open up their yearly financial statements in a machine readable format.

This was surprisingly hard. I spoke with people from the City of Vancouver, the City of Edmonton and the City of Victoria. I also presented the idea at the February Open Data Summit in Vancouver. At the same event, we discussed the idea at a round table, getting good suggestions and ideas from participants from the open data community. I’ve also blogged about the idea here and there.

In the end, I did get some traction at the City of Victoria. Right from the beginning Marianne Alto was supportive of the idea. In fact, it was something that she had already been thinking about. The data is not available yet, but it should be coming soon.

Looking forward to it!

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Canada’s Open Government? What about the F-35?

Let’s face it. We’ve got to get this right. Our economy and the future of children depend on it. It’s called an open and transparent government.

Canada has taken some steps forward in the last year. We are members of the Open Government Partnership. As such we have a commitment and action plan for becoming open and transparent. But we have a long way to go.

Kudos to the fifth estate for their excellent investigative broadcast on the F-35 controversy. It’s a shame that our government procurement system is so broken. It seems like the larger the price tag, the more room for corruption and cronyism. I mean if this was a procurement for a $1 M there would be more transparency and accountability for the decisions being made. At least, a government official would be available for interview. In this case (for a $25 B, and rising, procurement), the Royal Canadian Air Force presented the F-35 as the best option with key missing information from the competing aircraft.

Then, according to the fifth estate, when Canada decided to sole-source the F-35, the government based its decision on subsequent information obtained from the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter’s office who will benefit the most from the Canadian sale.

Photo credit: Defense Industry Daily

In his interview with the fifth estate, Pierre Spring, an ivy league “systems genius” who was a designer of the F-16 (the most successful U.S. fighter) is convinced that the F-35 is “inherently a terrible airplane” based on a “terrible idea.” It will not be successful as a combat plane or as a bomber. “The point is to spend money. That is the real mission of this airplane … to send money to Lockheed Martin,” says Spring.

A procurement process like this needs to be transparent, otherwise we do not know whether the government is acting in the interest of taxpayers.

We need to ask why the following people refused to be interviewed by the fifth estate for their investigation: Defense Minister Peter MacKay, Deputy Defence Minister Robert Fonberg, Associate Defence Minister Bernard Valcourt, Assistant Deputy Defence Minister (Materiel) Dan Ross, Chief Financial Officer, National Defence, Kevin Lindsey, Tony Clement, Industry Minister from 2008 to 2011,Lieutenant General Andre Deschamps, Chief of the Air Staff … the list goes on.

Canadians need to demand this transparency. We need to hold our government accountable. Otherwise, we are not taking responsibility for ourselves and for future generations of Canadians.

So what can we do? I suggest we unite online. Join a Facebook page. Demand transparency for the F-35 initiative from our elected government officials. Stop the bleeding, if that is what is required.

Strategic Approach to Government 2.0

One of the challenges that continually surfaces in Government 2.0 initiatives is what I call the tool syndrome. People get stuck on the tools. Should we use Facebook or Twitter? Do we need a blog or a wiki? Come on, admit it. We’ve all been there. I know I have.

The tools question is one that needs to be addressed at some point in the process, but it is not the first thing that should be considered. The first thing that should be considered is the business need. What do you want to do? Why?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been working on a strategic framework that helps organizations articulate and communicate what they want to accomplish and how to go about it. The framework is based on Benefits Realization, articulated by John Thorpe in his book The Information Paradox. Benefits Realization provides the fundamental governance, necessary conditions, and tools and techniques to enable organizations to effectively and efficiently manage business value from IT investments.

The frameworks helps organizations:

  1. To understand and align their programs and investments with their strategy;
  2. To help them quantify and manage the achievement of their business outcomes;
  3. To translate those strategies into meaningful action; and
  4. To achieve results.

My example of the Gov 2.0 Strategic Framework is a draft based on the Province of BC’s Citizens @ the Centre:BC Government 2.0: A Transformation and Technology Strategy for the BC Public Service. It illustrates how the Province’s initiatives/programs lead to the business outcomes articulated in their strategy.

The business outcomes are the circles on the right-hand side of the diagram. The initiatives are the boxes on the left of the outcomes. Usually, a Results Chain will include contributions, assumptions (risks) and accountabilities. I have omitted these components in the interest of simplicity to clarify the pictorial narrative. A document supporting the Results Chain is the Benefits Register which tracks the measure of each business outcome, including baseline and target value. The circles on the bottom are business outcomes that I have not mapped yet. Like I say, this is a work in progress.

The framework (Results Chain) tells a story in a single image and is an excellent communication tool for government executive, public service employees and the general public in understanding government’s strategic approach to Government 2.0.

The Results Chain is used by executive to articulate organization goals and understand the traceability between initiatives and business outcomes. Drafting a Results Chain on a whiteboard will precipitate a discussion that includes investment management decisions, a prioritization of programs, and a high level understanding of each program’s contribution to organization objectives.

Lackadaisical Media Coverage of Open Government Partnership Launch

The Open Government Partnership Initiative was officially launched this week in New York. Originally conceived by President Obama to promote government transparency globally, the meeting was co-chaired by the US President and Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil and was attended by the other founding heads of state from Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the UK.

This international initiative aims at securing concrete action plans from governments across the globe to promote transparency, expose corruption, increase citizen participation, and leverage web 2.0 technologies to make government more efficient, responsive, and accountable.

I’d like to make two points.

First, this event was very important. The meeting of 8 heads of state committed to information access, transparency, accountability and citizen participation is giant milestone in political history, never mind the history of open government. Additionally, another 40 countries (including Canada) have committed to joining the Open Government Partnership.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude (the UK representative) expressed the importance of the Open Government Partnership (with a bit of humour thrown in): “It is a law of politics that all oppositions are passionately in favour of transparency. In office governments tend to favour transparency and openness in their first 12 months when what they are exposing are their predecessor’s errors. After that, it is altogether less comfortable. There is nothing cozy, fluffy or soft about transparency. It’s hard-edged. It needs to be rigorous. It gets governments out of their comfort zone. It enables the citizen to hold the government to account. Not just every few years at election time, but week by week and month by month. And in embracing transparency, we volunteer to having our feet held to the fire on a daily basis. Today is a pivotal moment.” (Listen to the rest of Minister Maude’s address at 46:38 in the video at the end of post).

Second point I’d like to make is that this event was not well covered in the U.S./International media. For example, I did a search on “Open Government Partnership” with the news source being the New York Times over the last couple of days and came up with a big goose egg …

When I did the same thing for CNN, two pieces of journalism appeared. One on a botched group photo because President Obama had obscured the face of a person to his right when he raised his hand in a wave. The second was a behind the scenes look at the travel escapades of journalists following the President on the day of the meeting. Really, the President of the US and 8 world leaders meet on an initiative that will change the face of the world and nothing of substance about the meeting in the two of the largest media sources in the world? Weird.

Good media coverage or not the Open Government Partnership launch was a great day for global democracy, government transparency and citizen participation, a movement I fully expect to continue growing in the years to come. As Minister Francis Maude said in his address, “The shutters are being thrown back and the light is flooding in. And today we are at an inflection point. Today the demand for openness is unstoppable.”

Gov 2.0 is not (just) Government as a Platform

Gov 2.0 is more about people than it is about technology, more about culture than about the internet.

Before a presentation this week on how I use twitter to advocate for Gov 2.0 someone asked me: What is Gov 2.0?

I explained that Gov 2.0 is the next generation of government. It is a public service renewal where government becomes more efficient, responsive, and open to citizens. It is a recognition that we (public servants and citizens) are all in it together.

I told him about the launch of British Columbia’s new open data portal Data BC and a citizen-focused internet site this week. Along with increasingly more governments around the world, the Province of BC is committed to becoming more open, transparent and citizen-centric.

Gov 2.0 is about working with citizens to solve the really big issues that government can’t handle alone like health care, climate change, jobs, the economy, drug addiction, crime and poverty. It is a paradigm shift and, with enough citizen engagement, it is a societal transformation that includes citizens in governmental deliberation and decision making.

I didn’t tell him about Tim O’Reilly’s definition of Government 2.0 as “government as a platform.” O’Reilly, a forward thinker and the founder of O’Reilly Media, explains: “Government 2.0, then, is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0—to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.”

I’m a big fan of Tim O’Reilly. He is talking about how Government 2.0 makes use of the Web 2.0 platform technologies (cloud computing, collective intelligence apps, social media, mobile devices) to provide services to citizens. At the same time, he says, government needs to move away from being a ‘vending machine government‘ (where taxpayers put in money and government delivers complete, finished services) to being a collaborative government that works with citizens to create value. What I like is Tim’s call to action: “As technologists … we can do our part to be bold, to be brave, and think fresh because that is what will make a platform for greatness.”

Vending Maching Government

But I think we risk losing people when we talk about government as a platform. Gov 2.0 is not just about technology. The revolution was sparked by technology, and technology enables it, but Gov 2.0 is more about people than it is about technology, more about culture than about the internet. Gov 2.0 is about people being passionate and making changes for the collective good. Its success is more dependent on trust and people being willing to authentically share and participate, than it is on the latest social media tool. Even the name ‘Gov 2.0’ connotes technology, the second major revision of software. Sometimes I use the term ‘open government’ because it is more accessible for non-techies.

Let’s face it, we collectively have some large issues to address, and the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough technology or communication media. The challenge is that people need to come together and contribute through the technology to address the big issues. The challenge for government is that we need to build trust. We need to be transparent, engage with the public, understand their concerns, listen to their needs, harness their diverse expertise, be inclusive, provide value, and follow through on promises (walk the talk). As citizens, we need to become more involved, stand for something, understand the issues, lead change, share authentically, and know what we are passionate about and make a difference.

In British Columbia, as in many parts of the world, we are in exciting times and moving in the right direction. Sure, we have big challenges and a long way to become more transparent and build trust, but we are taking big strides in the right direction.

How do we organize government so that citizens can participate?

We are in the midst of a digital social revolution. Changes that are so dramatic in the Arab spring also wash upon the shores of democratic countries, though to a considerably lesser degree. But it is a revolution nevertheless. Just as we are unaware of the earth rotating around the sun at approximately 67,000 MPH, we are desensitized to the lightening-fast changes to our digital world and their social implications. The social, participatory web is enabling an informed citizenry and the democratization of knowledge and power.

At the same time, we are faced with complex, global and potentially life-threatening issues that impact our environment, economy and society. With the advancements of social media, the question that we all should be asking is: How do we organize government so that citizens can participate more fully in the decision-making and execution of initiatives that impact our lives, the lives of our children, and the future of our planet?

Democracy comes from the Greek rule by the people and it is a form of government where all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. In perspective, it is useful to remember Winston Churchill’s words: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

One of the problems we have with democracy is that citizens do not in fact have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. I see three important ways we can redesign government so that people can participate more effectively.

  1. Use Gov 2.0 to lower the transaction costs for citizens to participate fully with government
  2. Make government data open by default
  3. Ensure that government is transparent

Today, I want to comment on point 1.

1. Use Gov 2.0 to lower the transaction costs for citizens to participate fully with government

According to Don Lenihan’s public engagement framework, Rethinking the Public Policy Process, citizens participate with government in three processes: consultation, deliberation, and public engagement.

The consultation process is when citizens are consulted and public opinion is collected in wikis, blogs, Facebook pages, public hearings, telephone interviews, or online surveys, to give some examples. Then, government makes a decision based on that information. Although sometimes productive, this process is not effective when we are considering highly contentious and/or complex issues.

The deliberation process is when citizens contribute to the discussion on how to proceed with what is discovered in consultation process. Participants address issues, negotiate, seek synergies and/or compromises, and arrive at strategies to proceed in light of differing opinions. Government then makes the final decision.

The public engagement process is when citizens contribute to (or even lead/facilitate) the consultation process, deliberation process, policy and legislation decisions, and/or actions to address the issue. The public and government are partners throughout the entire public engagement process.

The social and interactive and participatory nature of Gov 2.0 makes it a natural enabler of all three forms of public involvement in government policy process. We have some good examples of consultation, deliberation, and public engagement via web 2.0 (i.e., http://www.livingwatersmart.ca/blog/, http://challenge.gov/, and http://www.federalregister.gov/), but surely this is just the beginning. We need to design government so it engages with citizens to participate more fully in making decisions and creating policy that impacts their lives.

One of the challenges we face, for example, is identity. When you log onto your bank account, the bank knows it is you who is transferring money into another account. If government had a similar high assurance of a citizen’s identity, it would enable high value Gov 2.0 services and support more effective participation for citizens. A verified identity would:

  • Allow citizens to access secure online services such as health information and passport renewal
  • Provide more credibility and lay a foundation of trust for online participants in the deliberation, negotiation, and collaboration of public policy
  • Enable online voting for public policy decisions and even the election of government representatives

We are in the midst of a digital revolution with profound social implications. Government, being one of our most entrenched institutional organizations, has a challenge and opportunity to grow with this change.

Citizens want a voice and stake in their government. They want to know government is responsive to their needs. People will no longer tolerate a secretive, paternalistic, ‘we-know-better’ government. The opportunity for government is to involve citizens and earn their trust. Real change will only occur when the public is involved and therefore willing to take shared ownership and responsibility for the issues that affect their lives.