Evolution of digital in Ontario and federally

This Google Doc provides a quick overview of things going on at the digital level in the Ontario and federal governments.

The document provides a link to a progress report on Ontario’s involvement in the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Ontario is the only sub-national jurisdiction from Canada to join. As an aside: Saskatchewan can think about joining when they stop hosting their government job application system on US servers and instead set them up on Canadian soil.

Students from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario – the national capital of Canada – are involved with the OGP. I have not found any other university to be involved with the initiative – which in my opinion is a major problem as this issue will now be defined by those who make it to Carleton, and even there, are enrolled in the classes that are participating in this initiative. The fact that Carleton is in the nation’s capital does not make it uniquely suited to give input. In fact, it would be worthwhile to engage a small post-secondary educational institution to test the power of communication and get inputs from outside the national capital. The fact that the students are mostly from a communications program is another major concern, in my opinion.

By seeing Open Data/ Digital through the eyes of communication, we risk turning it into a PR exercise. Data becomes about whoever speaks the language and what is being measured. So, rather than digital becoming the enabler of (increasing) participation by those who are on the outside, it becomes a propaganda exercise. A bit like how the Ontario government is running the Ontario Digital team.

Irritatingly, the link to the “People” section is now a pop-up – you can access it here.

The Ontario government is also seeking input on, and working on, digital service standards.

Participatory Budgeting in Ontario

This blog post by Grahame Rivers details the various steps the Ontario government has taken over the past four years in the realm of participatory budgeting. From hesitant first steps to a pretty detailed method, they have come a long way and learnt from their experiences.

Participatory budgeting is a process where citizens/ residents are involved/ asked for inputs in the budgeting process. Where this is a typically opaque process that is mostly limited to bureaucrats and elected representatives, participatory budgeting allows for new/ different initiatives to be funded. Also, the bureaucrats and politicians get a clear sense of what is popular and what is not and can help guide budgetary allocations.

The participation in Participatory budgeting can of course vary significantly. A jurisdiction simply asking citizens/ residents/ voters whether more money should be spent on buying new buses for the public transit system allows for limited participation. A jurisdiction where citizens/ residents/ voters are asked how they would like to spend a particular amount of budgetary allocation can be said to participate much more freely and thoroughly. Of course, this also varies depending on when the consultations are held (day-time or after 6pm when most people return from work), where they are held (close to low-income areas and easily accessible, or in difficult to reach places), among other considerations.

I can’t help but make the observation that this gives a twist to the idea of ‘out of touch’ politicians. After all, if politicians are in touch with what citizens/ residents/ voters want, then they should be able to include their demands in the budget already. If not, then politicians are out of touch. One must also note that at the provincial level, undertaking this exercise takes away from the legitimacy of the legislature. After all, the 100+ elected Ontario MPPs are sent to deliberate and decide. For a government to ignore the inputs of the opposition MPPs and listening to citizens/ residents/ voters makes for a strange situation. If participatory budgeting is how budgets are to be deliberated upon, why even let the politicians have a hand in it? The citizens/ residents/ voters can decide among themselves!

There was this effort in Toronto, but I am not sure what they are up to now.

This piece provides details on participatory budgeting and the author’s take on how the process unfolds in the City of Mississauga.

Alexandra Flynn provides a good write-up on participatory budgeting here.

Cross-posted.

Dude, where’s my data?

I will keep coming back to the main theme of this post in the future, because it is worth pointing out.

I came across a job (EO-2017-90, for the curious) with Elections Ontario, an independent Government of Ontario agency charged with conducting elections. The Ontario government has an elegant careers website that is simple and easy to use and also very transparent. While bodies like Elections Ontario could be argued to  fall outside of the regular Ontario government recruitment, all salaries are paid out of the same one Consolidated Revenue Fund. And in the end, they are all government employees, perhaps covered by different union agreements, but serving the same one province of Ontario.

Now, given that the province has a pretty good careers website and it is open to Elections Ontario and other provincial agencies to use (and many do use it), I wonder why Elections Ontario chose to go with a US website to do its recruiting? The applicants for the job in question were required to submit their applications here. The Ontario government has used HR Associates before – the Ontario Internship Program applications are processed by them and have been for almost a decade now. My issue is that the form was ultimately based on a US website that was acquired by SurveyMonkey.

The first issue is that Ontario taxpayer dollars are being used to conduct hiring by using a US website when there are perfectly fine Ontario options.

The second and more important issue is that of data sovereignty. By putting my data on a US server, it is subject to US laws. When there is a perfectly valid Ontario option available to the government, why is Elections Ontario turning over Canadian data to the US? The form says that the applications will ultimately be sent to the hiring manager. Well, why then not use the traditional Ontario careers website?Why have the data routed through the US? If E.O. was unaware that HR Associates is going to use a US based website, then it is very strange. HR Associates has been used extensively by the E.O. and data sovereignty is an issue that should be at the top of the mind of recruiters especially the government.

As an aside: By asking for the quoting of the job number in the subject line, E.O. can eliminate some applications at the beginning itself. There are other filters that E.O. can use. And quite frankly, I am not sure why having so many qualified applicants apply for the job is a problem. The government constantly talks about attracting talent and here you have it in plenty. I digress.

I am posting on this website because the servers are based in Canada. At least that is what the hosting company says on their website and I am sure that is the case. If I as a computer-novice can care about this, why doesn’t a well-funded government organization like E.O.?

I really do wonder what exactly E.O. gained by using HR Associates and its US based form.

PDF is not Open Data – 1

The City of Mississauga has a pretty decent Open Data page.

However, as is often the case, the one major aspect of Open Data that takes a long time to filter through to the entire organization is the idea of cross linking. That is, the data is in fact at only one location but every reference to it on any webpage only links to the data. Thus, there is only the “one” data that everyone refers to and not different copies. This somewhat falls apart when you note that the Mississauga Votes page has PDFs of municipal election data.

Granted that a data enthusiast who wants Open Data would actually figure this out and actually go to the Open Data page, but what about those who are just merely curious and do not really know about Open Data? Or what if someone does not really think of election related information as Open Data? By making data available in PDF the City is definitely making it easy for novices but it goes against the idea of Open Data. Cruel though it sounds, everyone must actually refer to only the “one” data and it is up to the City to ensure that it also follows through on this.

(Cross posted).

Typeface and fonts

A crucial aspect of a webpage is the typeface and font used on the page. I am no expert on this topic, but I do like it when a webpage’s text is pleasant to read.

One of the clear winners on this aspect is the UK government, with their unified typeface. Blog posts here, here, and here, give some idea of how the UK webpages have come to their current look.

The Ontario government’s webpages use different fonts. As the Communications section driven ontario.ca webpage takes off and starts becoming the centralizing/ defining page for all Ontario government websites, perhaps the Ontario government’s webpages will also start looking similar.

(This post will be updated)

Performance Measurement in Nova Scotia

I came across this website a while back and found it to be a good example of performance measurement as usually practiced by government.

Nova Scotia has typically faced a brain drain and this website tracks efforts to change that. Any time you set a goal, it is important to measure your way there to see how you are doing. This extends even to the realm of fitness – almost any and all fitness websites will tell you to track your activity to measure how well you are progressing (or not) towards your goal. The other thing it does is influence you psychologically – it is not just about doing something, it is that you see it done. And that makes you feel good.

The OneNS website, is of course not about fitness, but by having the website I bet it makes Nova Scotians feel a bit better about themselves and it shows what work is being done, and where work needs to be done.

As described in the Background section, the measurement is being carried out by a group of organizations, and this will go on until 2024. While it is normal for interest to fade after a while, the fact that the website is readily accessible and the measures are under development makes me believe that interest will be maintained. Seeing different rates of progress on the various indicators could also invite input/ suggestions from different quarters – interested/ affected organizations or individuals thus again ensuring interest in the project.

I like the fact that it is a long-term project – gives it time to change methods if/ as needed to achieve or even exceed goals. And, of course, generates more data.

Performance measurement in the public sector, and I am sure it is the case in the private sector too, is always tough to measure. The goals mentioned are often hard to define and everyone’s interpretations are different. “A better society” for one may mean something completely different than to another.

I recall reading a very interesting article on this topic when I worked for the Ontario government (I could easily access public administration journals, one of the perks of being in the public service). Markus Sharaput’s “The limits of learning: Policy evaluation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation Authors” (Canadian Public Administration; Volume 55, Issue 2; June 2012; Pages 247–268) talks about the problem of measurement at the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, frequently the source of good news for the provincial government. Perhaps the members of OneNS can read up on this article to learn some useful lessons and do better with their online efforts.

Performance Measurement

I came across a page about Performance Indicators on the Ontario government’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs website. This is different from the Municipal Performance Measures. The Municipal Performance Measurement Program data is archived as the program has been discontinued. This is good from a webpage tracking point of view as the page URL will hopefully not change. With the Ministry of Municipal Affairs’ webpages having numbered URLs, pages can and do disappear. Given that performance measurement is rightly public knowledge, it is good to see that the MPMP data has been collected into one place and made available on the Ontario government’s Open Data page. Perhaps they can start publicizing the FOI requests they get as well, and related indicators (time needed to fulfill request, amount charged)?

Performance Indicators, as per the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, “can be both descriptive and numerical results that measure the performance of an important service. They can also measure efficiency, effectiveness, value for money, and client satisfaction. For example, numerical performance indicators can measure outputs such as: how much of a service was delivered, percentage of age groups, proportion of specific factors, or the cost of interventions.”

Performance Measurement is a tool used to measure, well, performance. The Government of Canada has a guide on developing performance measurement strategies.

The Parliamentary Budget Office has done some work on performance measurement here and here . They also produced a very good report on performance budgeting.

This post will be updated.