In a democracy, the promises of government officials generally come down to: Give me your vote and I will solve your problems. Yet, today, those promises seem to be increasingly difficult to keep.

Governments around the world are facing complex societal challenges in a time where our economy, our society and our environment are being fundamentally transformed. Today, the best strategy involves governments working together with society to develop solutions to problems, rather than trying to keep up the illusion that they can solve them all on their own.

The question then becomes: How can we make government collaborate with society?

Two possible answers to that question are being hotly debated, and not just here in Canada. The first answer is open government, which was the central theme of GovMaker Day, an event held by MaRS in partnership with the City of Toronto, the City of Guelph and the Government of Ontario on November 22. Over 250 civil servants from all levels of government, as well as guests from outside of government, convened to discuss the why, what and how of open government. In fact, they did more than just discuss: the participants developed new ideas on how to make government more open, resulting in 32 recommendations for action.

As I described in a previous blog post, there are three strategic objectives of open government:

  • Increase the transparency and accountability of government;
  • Engage in dialogue with citizens to increase both the quality and the legitimacy of decision-making processes; and
  • Collaborate with society to create new or better solutions.

Those same three pillars returned in Institute on Governance president Maryantonett Flumian‘s working definition of open government at GovMaker Day. It was a day full of good energy, rich conversations and inspiring talks by experts, leaders and practitioners of open government. Just read the tweets. What struck me most, however, was the openness and honesty of both the speakers and the participants—because let’s face it: open government is a great goal, but one that can be difficult to realize. Only when we acknowledge that fact can we find ways to change it.

Ann Pappert, chief administrative officer of the City of Guelph, spoke about the kind of leadership that is needed to make open government succeed. Such leadership is not always present, nor is it easy to achieve. She also stressed the need to learn and to build the capacity to be open. Considering what the City of Guelph has done, it seems it has paid off.

Ontario Minister John Milloy admitted: “We do not have all of the answers, we need to work together.” But the political culture can be tough. John warned against the old paradigms of governments, like the idea that government is mired by forces that make it ineffective at doing good, and his deputy minister, Ron McKerlie, spoke about the fundamental shift that open government requires in the way we currently do things. But open government is no longer a “nice to have,” it is a must-have. From the audience we heard that it is culture shifts, safe spaces and real action that are needed.

Scenes from GovMaker Day, including Ron McKerie, Deputy Minister, Open Government Ministry of Government Services, Government of Ontario (top left) and the Hon. John Milloy Minister of Government Services, Government of Ontario (top right)
Scenes from GovMaker Day, including Ron McKerie, Deputy Minister, Open Government Ministry of Government Services, Government of Ontario (top left) and the Hon. John Milloy, Minister of Government Services, Government of Ontario (top right)

At the same time, GovMaker Day also demonstrated how many opportunities currently exist. Paul Macmillan, Deloitte’s global public sector leader, gave many examples of successful open government initiatives from his new book The Solution RevolutionUlli S. Watkiss, city clerk of the City of Toronto, showed how easy it can be to start open government initiatives. Peter MacLeod, principal of MASS LBP, stated that apathy is a myth: many citizens want to help and want be involved. This became clear throughout some of the other presentations of successful initiatives, from the Toronto Citizen Budget to the portal of the Treasury Board of Canada. Additionally, many saw opportunities for smart savings, generating wealth and creating better solutions through open data. “Data is the new oil of the economy,” said Maryantonett.

The conversation continues.

Since GovMaker Day, the new GovMaker Linkedin Group has been growing fast, connecting govmakers across all levels of governments who want to make government more open and innovative. There is a growing awareness and energy to work on open government initiatives.

So, open government provides a strategic framework for governments to collaborate with society. That is certainly valuable. While public resources are diminishing, society’s problem-solving capacities are at a record high. People are more educated and informed than ever before, and there is also more private capital for social good than ever before. Technology enables society to perform complex, collaborative tasks cheaply and easily. Not making use of these facts, just because internal processes do not allow it, would be—in plain words—pretty dumb. Open government is a strategy to help change those internal processes to allow for outside creativity and the capacity to help co-create solutions to people’s problems.

This is only the first answer to the question “How can we make government collaborate with society?” The second answer involves actually bringing all of the stakeholders together to create the system change that is needed to solve these complex societal challenges.

Labs seem to be a promising platform.

In the first months of the MaRS Solutions Lab we encountered a lot of eagerness, energy and excitement to work with the lab concept. Many people want to work with us, which we see as an honour, but also as a challenge. In many places, both inside and outside of government, solutions labs are being introduced and set up, and not just in Canada. In the United Kingdom this month, a new policy design lab will be launched in the Cabinet Office, modelled after Denmark’s MindLab.

As labs gain more interest, we need to gain more clarity about their value and roles to prevent them from becoming the next hype. I deeply believe that labs can play an important and valuable role in creating public value and solving complex societal problems, but it is hard work. One cannot complete a lab in a week. That would deny the complexity of the challenge. Solutions labs also involve much more than simply convening some meetings. The challenge is bringing about real change that improves the lives of people. That is what they voted for.

Want to hear more? On January 9, 2014, Joeri van den Steenhoven will give a MaRS Global Leadership lecture titled “Systems Change: Facing Canada’s toughest challenges.” You can register here.

Joeri van den Steenhoven

Joeri was VP of Systems Innovation and the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…