Maclean’s Makes the Argument for #OpenGov

Yet elections are the only opportunity citizens have to directly control the future of their country and, in narrowing the field to two well-defined and credible main contenders, Canadian voters have had to think carefully about what really matters to them and why.

To find the best solution, you have to revisit your understanding of the problem.

A continuous problem Canadians face when they go to cast their ballots on Election Days is knowing who or what to vote for (or against). Do you like a local party candidate, but dislike their leader? Agree with some policies, but not all? What happens if you like some policies of one party, but also some policies of a competing party?

You only get one vote, and that only once every four years (barring minority governments falling). That means you have to decide which of your competing priorities and concerns matter more to you.

Conversely, if you are a political party that has just won a majority government, you can essentially make any claim you like about what exactly your mandate is (and isn’t). Any scandals that upset the nation can be considered forgiven, or unimportant. Every policy and its implementation can be seen as Canada-approved.

It’s an all-or-nothing proposition, and political parties know it.

That’s why so much time gets spent trying to frame “the ballot question” — the one issue that can be the central issue of a campaign. It can be a specific file, or a specific scandal, or even a manufactured issue like the niqab debate. Knowing that voters only get one say and can only realistically juggle a handful of concerns at one time, partisan operatives try to make sure the big stories of a campaign reflect issues that favour them (and negatively impact their opponents).

This is why important, structural issues — say, climate change or addressing the multiple infrastructure, social and economic challenges presented by the Silver Surge — can be completely ignored over the course of a campaign and, consequently, get little attention over the course of a mandate.

If you’re a home-owner, imagine having to choose between hiring a contractor to replace your roof or to keep your lawn trimmed, with no option at all to repaint the cupboards, or replace a broken window, or get new flooring for four years. If you’re not a property owner, your concerns aren't even included in the options provided.

Doesn't make much sense, does it?

So let’s revisit the problem. Perhaps the problem isn’t Canadians having to pick carefully from among the concerns that matter to them, but the level of direct engagement they have in determining the future of their country.

Understanding this problem requires a cursory understanding of how Canada’s democratic system (Westminster Parliament) functions. In this system, we elect local representatives (Members of Parliament) to hold the Crown (government) to account for our issues. In theory, this means that MPs are answerable only to their constituents, and therefore should be committed to raising the concerns those constituents bring to their attention in the House of Commons.

The big hitch, of course, is political parties.

In theory, political parties help bring specific issues and approaches to government attention through power of numbers. It’s like anything else; the more voices that raise one issue, the more likely it is to be taken seriously.

The problem is that, by convention, the political party whose candidates win the most seats in Parliament now becomes government (the Crown). This gives parties greater incentive to ensure that the candidates they field are best representatives of their party interests, which will be narrowly defined.

In practice, this has led to political parties often having more influence over MPs that actual constituents, especially between elections. If your future opportunities and local wins that can secure your re-election rely on a party’s favour, you want to be on their side.

As un-elected party organizers gain influence over policy direction and the choices of their members, the constituents who actually elect those members lose the ability to influence the agenda.

That’s where things stand, at the moment — but there’s change in the air.

Governments around the world (both elected representatives and public services) have begun playing around with the concept of Open — Open Government, Open Data, Open Source.

With Open Government, citizens have access to the same government data that politicians theoretically use to make their policy choices, plus opportunities to weigh in on policies or even craft their own.

A great example of how this has worked recently was Ontario’s Budget Talks program that crowd-sourced policy ideas and allowed citizens to debate among themselves which pieces they liked and didn’t like.

Another Ontario example — the invitation of Canadians (or anyone, really) to contribute input to the design of the province’s Open Data Directive.

Initiatives like this are simply making use of the tools now available (like the internet) to do what Parliament is meant to do, only on a broader scale — understand what it is that Canadians view as priorities.

Of course, there are still challenges with the shift towards crowd-sourced policy — coalitions that focus on niche issues can still emerge and inevitably some voices that aren’t heard — but Open Government and civic participation in the actual policy-development process will provide more voices with a greater say on specific issues on a real-time basis.

This way, individual issues and concerns can get the attention they deserve, and it will be much easier to tackle some of the wicked structural problems we face as a society.

The big problem this election has highlighted for Canadians isn’t the challenge of what/who to specifically vote for or against, but that we need to have more say between elections.

Open Government is the way to make that happen.