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The "Open" Episode

Weathered sign with the word open on it

An open episode on Open Government! We’re opening the way for you with some great learning resources.

Don’t miss the inspiring video from Australia’s Pia Andrews calling for open engagement. Listen to Guillaume Charest open up about open tools and collaboration.
Dare to open up!

5 Myths About Open

We asked our colleagues at the Office of the Chief Information Officer to debunk these myths about "open".
6 minutes

False – In addition, in July 2018, TBS directed departments to allow employee access to collaboration sites such as Google Docs, Trello and Slack. These tools can enable public servants to collaborate across silos and internal file management systems without relying on an array of emails. They can also be used for collaboration with external partners.

Public Servants are also allowed to use social media. However, you should be aware that the Values and Ethics Code and other obligations, such as protecting sensitive information, applies to your social media use – even if you do not use it for professional purposes.

When using any of these tools, you should always remember not to put confidential or protected information on these sites, and save any documents of business value into your official files.

False – Transparency and accountability are important, but Open Government has many benefits.

The Open Government Partnership has created The Skeptic’s Guide to Open Government which summarizes research and cases studies about the benefits of Open Government in 5 key areas:

  1. public service delivery,
  2. business opportunities,
  3. government efficiency and cost saving,
  4. prevention of corruption, and
  5. trust in government.

False – Not only can the Government use open source software, but we’ve begun prioritizing open source software.

In December 2018, a new Directive on the Management of Information Technology was issued, which says “Where possible, use open standards and open source software first”.

False – The same directive says “by default any source code written by the government must be released in an open format via Government of Canada websites and services designated by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.” The Canada(dot)ca team, the Canadian Digital Service and other teams are active on GitHub.

False – Stakeholders across a variety of sectors use Canada’s open data for public accountability journalism, social policy research, business insights and opportunities, and academic and government studies. For example, Canadian academics are using open staffing survey data to create assessments of the health of governments. Others are using open data to find ways to improve the quality of drinking water in Canada, develop environmental governance strategies, and create financial literacy products for Canada’s youth.

In fact, Canada tied for #1 in the world on the Open Data barometer, a global measure of how government are publishing and using open data for accountability, innovation, and social impact. 

Explore Canada’s Open Data here.  

Open Source

Guillaume Charest

Guillaume Charest

Listen to the podcast by Guillaume Charest, from TBS, who explains the importance of using free software and platforms, supported by concrete examples. Deconstruct the myths, sometimes firmly rooted, about the use of its collaborative tools.
7 minutes

Reporter: In an open world it makes sense to work openly by default; but what is working openly?

It is both simple and complex. Let’s keep it simple. In short, it means opening up our products, sharing our non-sensitive information, opening our work to other teams, other organizations, to the whole world if it is profitable.

Why? Because there are many advantages. For example, you are free to reuse existing products, transform them, improve them and adapt them to your needs.

It’s a kind of free exchange of information or a free flow of data. It is beneficial to collaborate as widely as possible, building on the expertise of others. Ok. Easy to say. But as a civil servant, how do I do that? What tools can I use to either share my work openly or learn from the work of others? GCdocs, for example, is an information management or storage tool that promotes collaboration. But is it open enough?

Guillaume Charest, open source software advisor at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat answers this question:

Guillaume Charest: If I need to work in the open, if I want to exchange through… have multiple people collaborating on the same document at the same time… well the way we have deployed GCdocs does not meet that need right now. So it’s not a collaboration platform. Maybe the technology, that technology is Open Text behind GCdocs, could offer that capability but it’s not at the moment so as such it’s not meeting our needs in terms of public service.

If you’re in to working together, you can use Microsoft Office 365, Google Docs. They offer capabilities of having people multiple people editing the same document together.

Reporter: Is it open standards would you say so?

Guillaume Charest: No that’s not open standards. I would say it’s a free solution. So there are free tools, free services, free open-source software. The difference is solution may be free the right you have only resides within the boundaries of what is provided to you.

So if you look at Google Docs that’s awesome because you can work in the open but the technology on there it is proprietary so it’s not open source. The document itself is open. You can all see it, you can all collaborate together and it meets the need of working in the open. That’s totally fine.

It’s not however meeting the digital standard of using open-source software and that’s fine. There’s gonna be points in time that you should most likely go with a closed source solution because that’s what meets your needs and that’s ok.

But you need to do the exercise of being good digital citizens and looking at what’s available out there. I need to be able to collaborate. Well, cool, let’s use Google Docs. Perfect.

Do you have any classified information in that collaboration? Yes? Well then don’t. You can’t do that because it’s classified information. All unclassified? Good to go.

Follow the rules. The problem I think we had in the past is that we’ve had a lot of uncertainty around those rules and so as such we just said “you know what? I’m not gonna do anything” and that’s that’s the problem. We need to better understand our rules.

That’s what we’ve been trying to do at Treasury Board recently. Trying to clarify those rules. Make sure yes, you can work in the open. You should be working in the open.

Why? Because you don’t know everything and you got colleagues in other departments that have gone through the motions already. Leverage them.

And you know what? Citizens are willing to help you. Companies are interested in helping you as well.

So as long as you’re working on unclassified material do it in the open.

Reporter: Interesting shift to be able to use at work the same tools we use in our private lives. Except of, course, when it comes to confidential information. Does this mean that so-called open source software is not secure?

Guillaume Charest:  One of the myths that keeps coming back to us is like “open source software it’s not secure.” Why is it not secure? “Because the code is open.” Ok. Well, there’s a lot of different other things to consider.

The software you’re going to be running. First it’s gonna be in this specific environment. You’ll have to… your security can’t just be at this software level, has to be at the network level. It’s multi-dimensional.

Reporter: Our IT and programmers are invited to adapt, use, and allow the use of these software or technologies known as open source. I understand the advantages. It’s overall cheaper. It’s inter-operable between our organizations and it’s easier to update in response to technological changes.

That’s fine but concretely on a daily basis as a non IT official I already use, and no doubt you too, these open source software to collaborate. Which ones? Well, the GC tools. They are all open source software. Last time I checked, more than 55,000 of us were using them. Not bad at all.

Guillaume Charest: I think that’s part of our role civil servants. One of the thing that we have to understand is our needs and it’s both our business needs but really our user needs. How do I, what do I need to be able to offer great services to our citizens. And sometimes it does mean being able to point to certain technology that’s open there. So sometimes it’s frustrating for us public servants because the technology we know is free. There’s no cost associated to it. I don’t need to have a contract in place. And yet IT still says no.

So we need to have dialogue. We need to understand where we can work together and see what other departments have done. And manage to go through the motion and say okay. So from a security assessment perspective they’ve done the work already and probably should be able to share it with other departments so that we at least have a part of the part of the assessment done. Even though our environments are totally different I totally understand the each department is different. At the end of the day there’s a lot of the analysis that’s standard for each one of them. So this working in the open again even though it’s not to the public, sharing that analysis amongst ourselves would benefit each other so that we can accelerate the process. And so, what I would say at this point is, go for the low hanging fruits. Anything that you see could be replaced by an open source alternative that would benefit all departments. Work with your Enterprise architects. They’re trying to find common pieces so that we can all benefit from this at your department scale but then explode that and make it available for the rest of the government at an enterprise level.

Reporter: What about you? What tools, free or not, do you use to better inform yourself or share practices in your field of expertise. We would very much like to read you in the comment box at the bottom of this page. By the way, we use free software to produce busrides.ca and trajetsenbus.ca. Yeah, yeah. We built our web page using WordPress – the most popular free software in the world to produce websites. It’s also basically free of charge.

Working in the Open - Olivia Neal

Olivia Neal, Executive Director, Digital Change at TBS, talks about the ecosystem in which the public service must operate.
1 minute

Play Video

We are part of an ecosystem which increasingly interacts with the private sector, increasingly has opportunities for interaction with the provinces or other countries.

And we have to start thinking about how we make that interaction as useful as possible for our citizens. And how we can get that knowledge and expertise that’s out there into what we do because there’s some brilliant opportunities for us.

And the way that we will survive and thrive and grow as a government is to be open to that ecosystem that we’re a part of so for me that that’s not one of the digital standards in itself but its underlying through all of these whether we’re thinking about being a good data steward so that other people can reuse our data whether we’re thinking about how we collaborate whether we’re thinking about using open standards and solutions so that other parts of the world can join onto these that’s a really important fundamental for me.

Open Government - Pia Andrews

Listen to the inspiring video of Pia Andrews from New South Wales in Australia calling for engagement.

2 minutes

Play Video

I really wanted to open with a couple of comments about why openness and engagement is so critical to our work in a modern public service.

For me, looking at digital government, it’s not just about digital services; it’s how we transform government into the 21st century. How we transform, how we do service delivery, how we do engagement, how we do collaboration, how we do policy regulation, legislation. How do we make public services fit the purpose so that they can serve you, they can serve the people, communities, and economy of the 21st century?

For me, lot of people think about digital; they think about technology. (sighs)

Open government is a founding premise, a founding principle for digital government. Open that’s not digital doesn’t scale, and digital that’s not open doesn’t last. That doesn’t just mean looking at things like open source or open content, open APIs. It also means being open, open to change, being open to people, being open to doing things with people not just to people. There’s a fundamental cultural, technical, and process shift that we need to make. And it all starts with open.

So, please have an amazing conference. I wish I could be there. I look forward to seeing all the Tweets on the outs of it, and I look forward to working with all of you to make the sort of public services that we need today. Thank you.

Canada's Open By Default Pilot

The Open by Default pilot is your backstage pass to the work of four government departments.The goal is to give you a snapshot of Government of Canada documents as they’re being created.
1 minute

The Government of Canada is changing how it interacts with the public.

With several levels of approvals, sharing information with the public has been a challenging process, creating barriers when developing new policies, programs, and services.

How then, can the Government of Canada deliver on its commitment to be open and transparent?

Right now we’re testing an Open by Default pilot that gives the public a behind-the-scenes look at the federal government’s work as its being created. 

With the push of a button, public servants will be able to share working documents on open.canada.ca, facilitating co-development of policies, civic engagement, and more impactful science.

Imagine, a government that:

  1. works in the open
  2. shares information as it is created
  3. increasingly collaborates with the public

That, is Open by Default.

Open Source: An Overview

This video highlights what open source software is and how we can go beyond the myths.
5 minutes


Everyone in the room here, doesn’t matter if it’s Android or Apple that you’re using on your cell phone, is using open source software. When I’m walking home after work and listening to music, there’s open source libraries helping me stream that. When I’m opening an image on my phone, there’s an open standard for that image. When we’re using the Internet, the Internet would not exist if it wasn’t for open standards. So it’s fundamental to the way that we work.

For just getting into what is open source, open source software is where the source code is available to use, to modify, and redistribute. So that’s the fundamental concept and it’s community-based. You can report a bug on it, you can propose a change to it and it’s grass-root movements that really created open-source a while ago, and it’s the community keeps open-source going right now. The reason why open source is so important is that through the use of that community, we can start sharing, reusing.

People in the government of Canada are amazing problem solvers and they’re incredible researchers. But some of these problems have been solved before and so we don’t necessarily need to figure it out every single time.

Right now, our source code that we develop within federal departments, we tend to have that closed in, right. So my team will develop something really great and then another team on another floor, but from another department, will develop something really great that’s really similar.

Why would we go out and recreate solutions that already exist?

You’re also reusing all of the effort that’s gone into the design of that code, to the testing of that code, the quality. So the benefit is usually much greater than just the effort of writing that code.

In the UK, once we’d push the bar on making code open, we started pushing it further to say we should be coding in the open and we found it do things like increase the quality of people’s work. You know if you if you’ve got other people’s eyes on what you’re doing, you’re instinctively, from the beginning, making that better. It engages people more. We found it was a good recruitment tool. You know we’re trying to get the best people into government and this is what the best leading companies are doing. Why would we not be following that approach as well?

I mean, I think one of the big myths out there is that open source is not secure. It’s neither inherently secure or inherently insecure. It’s really more about the entire approach that you take.

So I think there’s a myth around open source, but maybe around technology and digital government as a whole, which makes me really angry at you, which is that the government can’t do this. You know we ask government, we don’t have the people to do this, we don’t have the skills and you know we better trust, it’s better that we, you know, we pay other people to look after this for us and we can transfer risk like that. And you can never, you can never outsource risk. If you’re in government, you might be contracting with anybody. If something goes wrong, you, as government, are still accountable and you absolutely should be, and that we do have the capability in government to do this. We can be very humble about our abilities, but there are hundreds of brilliant people across government doing really big, good, great things in this area and I think we should be really confident in our ability to take different approaches and think, okay, so it might have been traditional to do things one way in the past, but we can change, we have that capability, and we have that drive, and we’ve got no reason not to.

There can be a bit of a tendency to say, well we’re going to wait until Treasury Board tells us exactly how we should do this and then we’re going to follow that to the letter. There is this very, very active community out there that you’re probably all part of already. But if you’re not doing it on GCcollab and being part of those conversations, because that is full of people who are already doing this in the government of Canada. And the best way to learn how to do something is to go and talk to somebody who’s already done it.

But on top of that people that actually go out and do the work need the top cover, right. they need CIOs that say yes, go and use open source. CIOs that say let’s try and publish that. We need people who push the boundaries.

Living in the open, working in the open, is a very large culture shift. And open is so often anti or non intuitive to our teams. But once you make it, you start to see the advantages. You start to see that the world doesn’t fall apart when you make mistakes. The world actually gets better. You learn collectively.

And look at the ultimate goal. What are we trying to achieve? And that’s service to Canadians. To do that, we need to meet those expectations – that’s digital government – and then to get the digital government, we have to be more agile, and the tools to do that, come from open source.

Open Your World With These Additional Resources

Open Source Guides

Quick reference guides

European Open Data programme

Free online course

OGP Toolbox

Use cases and tools

GC Infobase

Interactive data visualization tool

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2 Comments

  1. Erin P

    As a former student with CSPS, I really liked listening to these episodes. Now that I’m with a different agency under a different department, I find it much more challenging to explore and interact with innovative tools and ideas. My current network blocks access to Slack, YouTube, and GoogleDocs and blocks access to all of the videos on this very page (but I’m super grateful for the transcriptions!). I think it is important to emphasize that different departments are in different stages along their cultural shift to open government. I also think that this involves reflecting on how our business activities (and expectations of the broader GoC) have evolved and changed in our current digital age. I’m definitely interested in exploring this further on GCcollab or GCconnex… Thanks for this episode!

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    • jmelanson

      Thank you Erin for your interest, we are very happy to hear from you about how you can openly interact with colleagues or partners outside the Canadian government. GcConnex and GcCollab are among our best trading platforms. Keep writing to us. We like to read you.

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