It's time for an open



January 07, 2016

This article was initially posted on Dec 22nd, 2015 in the Hill Times.

If you have been on a federal government website in the past year, you may have noticed that it looks a bit different. Or you might not. The differences to the look and feel of the sites are a bit subtle for your average user. Almost all Canadians are unaware of the imminent  plans to shift these sites to a proprietary content management system hosted in the US.  

The move from having government sites hosted in Canada and supported by Canadians, to being managed in the USA by a huge American company should concern people. This transition will end up costing Canadians a great deal as this company will have a monopoly over the government’s public-facing web presence.

Now, you could say that this is just one website, so why worry? Well, the Harper Government was inspired by the UK’s efforts to build one common base for all sites in order to build optimal efficiency. While this is an interesting model, given that most citizens don’t know or care about which department is responsible for what, this target is really just a small part of a much bigger project undertaken by the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS). The GDS is actively working to revitalize how it communicates with it’s citizens in an open and transparent fashion. This bigger transparency project has not been part of the plan for

The work of the GDS is inspirational. We know that governments desperately need to embrace Internet thinking and that this is much deeper than converting a few paper based forms into web forms. Modern governments are beginning to adopt tools like GitHub, a web based software development site, that allow citizens to engage directly in influencing both code and policy. The GDS vision addresses open standards, open source, and open data. Working to inspire, challenge and influence other departments to change, the GDS is a model inside and outside the UK.

We can also look to the USA, with the Obama administration’s adoption of the open-source Content Management System (CMS) Drupal for the website back in 2009. This CMS is now the predominant platform for their federal government.

The Australian government has made the move to Drupal as well and is paying close attention to the GDS’ modernizing efforts. Their Digital Transformation Office is also promoting open-source and playing a strong role in educating bureaucrats and citizens about modern best practices. Their government has build a government platform on Drupal that they are making available to any government agency in Australia, at a very competitive price. It includes all of the performance, branding, security and accessibility requirements that all government sites require.

Unfortunately, just choosing a good CMS isn’t enough to modernize government. Realizing the need for deeper digital integration, the USA has set up 18F which is a Digital Services Delivery agency designed to rethink technology use and encourage cultural change in the public sector. 18F is also experimenting with confronting the challenges of running an innovative organization within the procurement constraints of public sector. There is plenty of evidence that purchasing practices need to be radically rethought in order to address real-time needs of projects. There experiment with open-source micro-purchasing is producing very hopeful results in reducing costs and effectiveness.

The UK, the US and Australia aren’t keeping their innovations all to themselves, they are putting their work out in the open with a “Share First” approach. No espionage or diplomacy is required to obtain the best practices that each are adopting, one only needs to copy the files from a repository on Github. It’s free and anyone can begin to adopt these policies for themselves.

The Harper Government did not believe in the public sector and worked hard to privatize what they could. I do hope that Prime Minister Trudeau will reconsider the transfer of to a closed and proprietary system managed by a US company. Hopefully the new Liberal government will consider how they want citizens to connect with their government. If Canada is going to keep-up in this digital age, we simply can’t have our government outsource its technology.

The Government of Canada needs to own its digital transformation strategy and set up an office to help spearhead adoption of best practices and innovation both in the public and private sectors.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.

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