Canada’s digital minister: How open government can fight fake news

Opinion: Democracy is under pressure — is open government the answer?

This opinion article was written by Joyce Murray, President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government for the Government of Canada. for more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


We live in the age of paradox.

Never before in human history have people been so connected, so able to learn and share new information, so free to explore the planet from the comfort of their home computer or smartphone.

Yet this same digital revolution that connects us all means it has never been easier to spread disinformation and breed scepticism.

Misusing information to target and divide specific audiences, and to exploit existing social tensions for personal or political gain — whether on your street or on the opposite side of the world — has profound implications for public institutions that provide important checks and balances, such as the courts and the media.

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And such tactics could even pave the way for democratically elected leaders to subvert democracy and establish authoritarian rule. If we don’t face these challenges, we may repeat some of the most tragic periods of our collective history.

The promise of open government

My cabinet colleague, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, has compared the current period of rapid technological change – and the stresses it places on governments, societies and middle class individuals – to the rise of modern industrial monopolies that preceded the devastating World Wars of the early 20th century.

“The bad news is before we figured it out, we had to live through the First World War, the Second World War, the Great Depression and the Bolshevik Revolution,” Minister Freeland recently stated. “So let’s hope we can figure it out more quickly this time.”

Without a doubt, the stakes are extremely high.

So what can we do? The good news is that the transparency, accountability and two-way communication that digital technology makes possible can help governments work on behalf of citizens in ways that are responsive, efficient, fair, and help restore trust in public institutions.

That’s the promise of open government.

Hosting the community

Open Government advocates putting citizens at the heart of democracy. Not only does it call on them to participate in elections, it empowers them to co-develop, with governments, new policies, programs and services that respond to their needs.

While threatening to subvert democracy on the one hand, the digital revolution also enables open government and has the potential to restore people’s faith in their governments to serve them and improve their lives.

As co-chair of the international Open Government Partnership (OGP), Canada wants to explore this paradox, openly and transparently. We’re hosting the world’s Open Government community on May 29-31 in Ottawa, where the promise and power of open, inclusive and diverse societies will confront some of the dangerous realities of 21st century communication.

Some 2,000 delegates from around the world will be in Ottawa to discuss the themes of the 2019 OGP Global Summit: participation, inclusion and impact – and how our digitally connected citizens can further benefit from open government. Connected communities can increase citizen participation, foster greater inclusion and have a real impact on governance.

Open government generates greater trust, better government decisions, and superior outcomes for citizens.

Best in class

At the same time, the digital space is contested space.  Fake news, misinformation, disinformation and electoral-system vulnerabilities erode trust, undermine the faith of citizens and can be corrosive for the inclusive societies we’re trying to build.

By making the information and data used by Canada’s federal government available to Canadians without them having to ask for it, what we call “open by default,” we’re changing democracy itself

Open government puts tools at our disposal to respond to these threats.  Argentina, for example, created an open source digital platform that helps vulnerable citizens easily access information on condom delivery points, family planning information, HIV testing, vaccinations and infectious disease centres.

Spain launched a platform for public participation in decision making and allows any resident to propose new local laws and contribute to debates. In Canada, GC Infobase is an easy-to-use online platform that offers Canadians a reliable single entry point to federal financial, personnel and results data. Governments around the world are grappling with how to ensure citizens have trustworthy, verifiable information for civic engagement.

Canada is now open by default

By making the information and data used by Canada’s federal government available to Canadians without them having to ask for it, what we call “open by default,” we’re changing democracy itself.

Being open by default gives citizens the tools they need to monitor the workings of government so that they can hold us responsible for our actions. We’re also connecting people to hundreds of opportunities to work with policy-makers and participate in the development of public policy.

In addition, we’re continually opening communications with citizens across a range of platforms on issues that matter to Canadians. And we’re putting our progress in meeting government commitments online for all to see. Through these digital government initiatives, we’re shining a light on work underway and the path forward.

We’re also working with the international community, of which the Open Government Partnership is an important, developing forum.

In these disruptive times, the health of our democracies is of critical importance, and we look forward to working with other OGP countries to keep them strong and free in the digital age of paradox. — Joyce Murray

I invite you to follow me and Canada’s open government efforts on Twitter (@JoyceMurray, @OpenGovCan)

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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