Open Government

This week I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion with Brad Ross from the TTC, Pamela Robinson from Ryerson University and Rob Miekle from the City of Toronto as part of a collaboration between Western University and the City on the topic of Open Government.

Open Government is based on this key idea: that good government is rooted in access, transparency and participation. Ultimately, public trust in government will increase (a worthy objective itself) when there is better – and broad – understanding of the functions and roles of government, and as accountability to the public increases. In its corporate Strategic Plan, as adopted by City Council, the City of Toronto bureaucracy has committed to this goal, and the session this week was a critical step towards building internal capacity for delivering on it.

Municipal governments are uniquely positioned to drive this movement forward by virtue of being closest – both geographically and in terms of the daily services they provide – to the people they govern. It has been fascinating for me to observe how, in some ways, it is easy to be accessible and transparent in municipal government. Anyone can show up and observe council in progress, or attend a committee meeting and request to depute. The City of Toronto reporting structure, which requires public reports to be submitted to committee and/or council prior to the debate of an item, provides the opportunity for those who choose to get into the details and complexities behind any issue, to do so.

In addition, a comprehensive public process, where background materials are provided to inform the public and shape the debate, typically informs the recommendations in these reports. Subsequently, the analysis, which informs the recommendations of City Staff to City Council, is made fully available to the public in the context of a report. These reports also remain, through the City of Toronto’s website, in the public domain.

This is in stark comparison to other levels of government where, for example, a decision can be made to go to war without public access to the rationale for doing so, and in the absence of any mechanism for Canadians to weigh in on the decision-making process.

Now here’s the interesting part for me: over the past 15 years, my planning practice across Canada had reinforced for me that the best way to implement a progressive city building agenda, anywhere, is by engaging as many people as possible, building understanding related to best practices and the drivers for change (the problems we are trying to solve), and subsequently tapping into the creative energy and wisdom of communities to find solutions.

I didn’t appreciate this until very recently, but this “open” approach that is built upon creating engaged constituencies that are able to participate based on their shared interests, is the fundamental premise of Open Government.

In City Planning we are committed to both leading and partnering in city building. Open Government is critical to making our partnerships real, meaningful, and effective. We are also committed to functioning as an environment of continuous improvement – constantly measuring our success and shortfalls, and refining the work we do to serve the public better.

So I would like to highlight here a few of the initiatives we have underway in city planning that are about Open Government.

PIPs – Planners in Public Spaces is about planners moving out of their city hall offices to meet people in the community in the public spaces where they gather. These impromptu pop-up meetings engage residents who would not normally consider attending a public meeting, and are a key way of explaining what it is that we do in the City Planning Division to the public.

Growing Conversations – This is an on-going process designed to continually test and embrace improvements that allow for better community engagement. In doing so, our vision is to become the most engaged city in North America, with broad constituencies who take ownership for city building, working with us as both leaders and collaborators. The Open Data Framework, the Ethnic Media Strategy, and our Youth Engagement Strategy are all elements of Growing Conversations. In addition, in partnership with the City Manager’s office, we are testing and piloting a new online engagement platform, called IdeaSpaceTO.

Open Data Framework – The idea behind Open Data more broadly is that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. City Planning has important and valuable data that, when made public, can be used to better understand the city. While not all of our data can be made public (primarily due to privacy rights), we are working to make as much data as possible available to the public.

Ethnic Media Strategy – The five largest and fastest growing language groups in Toronto are Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Tamil, and Tagalog. At the same time, these communities are under-represented in our planning processes. So our Ethnic Media Strategy will involve a series of monthly columns in various foreign-language newspapers. Articles will cover a range of topics including: an overview of the engagement process, the Official Plan, Complete Communities, Complete Streets, Transportation, Condo Development and Waterfront Toronto, as a way of drawing new participants into our planning processes.

Youth Research Team – Knowing that youth are the fastest growing demographic in our city, and also the most under-represented in our planning processes, 10 youth researchers are assisting City Planning by investigating how best to involve Toronto’s youth in discussions around city building. Each researcher will be responsible for engaging 30-50 of their peers, whose ideas will be used to develop a Youth Engagement Strategy.

Chief Planner Roundtables – The Chief Planner Roundtable is a public forum for Torontonians to discuss key city-building challenges, and to identify innovative “drivers for change”. The Roundtables are founded on a platform of collaborative engagement, where industry professionals, community leaders, and City staff can discuss ideas about pressing issues in an open, creative environment. A variety of options for roundtable participation are available including attendance in person, watching the live-stream via the Internet, and contributing to the conversation via twitter, comment cards, or e-mail.

Annual Reports – As an outcome of our Strategic Plan, we produced our first Annual Report in 2013, which highlights the key work and projects of the City Planning Division in 2013. The goal in doing so is to be as transparent as possible with respect to the work that we produce on behalf of the residents of the City of Toronto. This also helps us both to build understanding around the scope of work that we do, and to enable more participation in our planning processes.

These are not frivolous undertakings. Open government is about more access, transparency and accountability. It is about better drawing on the resources of the community to improve our city planning processes, to deliver a higher quality and more effective service, and, ultimately, to build a better city.