Thank you for inviting me to appear before the committee.
Wisdom is quite the introduction to live up to.
I'm Michael. I'm a software engineer, and I'm here because a little less than a year ago I launched a website called openparliament.ca. It was a volunteer, part-time, experimental project that republishes some information about Parliament, most notably Hansard. It tries a few different things, with the aim of making some of that information a little bit friendlier, a little bit more accessible, a little easier to use. For example, I try to de-emphasize thick documents in favour of the answers to simpler questions, like what has my MP said in the House lately, or what happened on the floor of the House today.
I'm happy to say that other people seem to find that this way of information is useful, and tens of thousands of Canadians do use the site every month and find it useful.
I should say right off the bat that I've never worked in, for, or even really with government—so far. So my perspective is very much that of an outsider. What I hope to be able to offer the committee today is some idea of how the future of parliamentary communications—the subject of the report you're working on—can benefit from outsiders like me.
I've noticed that my name has come up a few times in this committee in the past. A few months ago, one of the former members of the committee, the member for Halifax, actually asked the parliamentary librarian about my site, and I will just quote briefly from his response. He said:
...it demonstrates that if Parliament...doesn't get its act together, other people will be putting out information about Parliament that may or may not be accurate and complete.
I think that's half right. To the degree that I can act as a spur toward the getting together of acts, I'm thrilled. At the same time, though, I think that other people putting out information about Parliament should in fact be a goal of parliamentary communications and of the Library of Parliament. I think that more people talking is very much the point.
Sometimes it's too easy within government to see the new or unexpected as a risk rather than an opportunity. I firmly believe that people like me—and there are many other people doing similar things in Canada and elsewhere—are an opportunity for Parliament, and that we have various structural advantages, various ways of doing different things that apply to us and not Parliament. One of those is that it's quite a bit easier for me to experiment. I can simply do things that Parliament can't.
On that topic, Richard Allan gave testimony quite recently, a couple of weeks ago. He talked about the power of beta, the really great power inherent in a digital context of being able to say that this is an experiment; we're trying something new here.
Indeed, when you look at a lot of the successful innovations, communications innovations, that come out of institutions, you find that a lot of them do start as pilot projects championed by an individual. I hope to see a lot more of that sort of thing coming out of Parliament, a lot of successful pilot projects, and, necessarily, a lot of unsuccessful pilot projects as well.
There are within an institution certain inherent restrictions on innovation, on experimentation. Those are restrictions I don't have. A year ago, before I launched this project, nobody interested in Parliament knew who I was. Now of course I'm a star and international sex symbol.
The point is that when I want to try something new, when I have a new idea of how to present something like this, I can try it. I can put a site out there. If no one finds it useful, then, well, no one uses it. For a nobody like me, failure is cheap. I'm in the almost joyful state of being able to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. That can be a really useful resource for Parliament. It's sort of the farm team model. Think of me as the Rimouski Canadiens of Parliament, or actually I think the affiliate of the Canadiens is the Hamilton Bulldogs—sort of somewhere in semi-obscurity where you can see which ideas catch on and later adopt the successful ones. Use it for ideas.
As a quick example, if you read through Hansard you'll find that the format in which votes divisions are laid out is somewhat arcane. It can be quite difficult for the uninitiated to find the answer to a relatively simple question, like “How did the Liberal party vote on the second reading of Bill C-14?”
So about five years ago a guy in Victoria named Cory Horner started a website on his own called “How'd They Vote?”, which aimed to make that easier to answer. It caught on, got a lot of media and public attention, and that site still continues and is useful to this day. But a few years later the parliamentary website added on the ability to see things like what the votes were on a given bill. I don't know what the chain of inspiration was there, but it can be the case that new methods of communication make themselves evident from the outside and are later adopted from the inside.
Another point is that I can do things on my own that Parliament simply can't. One of the more popular areas of my site is a page for MPs. I have a page for those of you who are members of Parliament on which you can see what a given member has said recently in the House, and in the same place is legislation they've introduced, and if they've posted Twitter or had mentions in the news media. For an interested outsider, these things go together quite naturally, having the context that both mentions in the news media and more formal speeches in Parliament provide each other. At the same time, I think it's clear that this is something that would be fairly difficult for Parliament to do on its own website--unparliamentary things are said on Twitter, and news articles, as you may be aware, are not always flattering.
That's an example of how all sorts of things can be done from the outside that are really useful that can't necessarily be done from the inside.
Hopefully I've given you some examples of how third-party organizations in general can be useful, and there are all sorts of examples internationally of ways in which this is happening. Richard Allan a couple of weeks ago talked a little bit about MySociety, a British organization that I'm a great admirer of that has done all sorts of really interesting projects from the outside to supplement Parliament's work and general democratic engagement in Britain.
Here is one example that's particularly relevant to Parliament. They operate a website--it was launched initially with some degree of partnership with the BBC--that allows you to look through the transcripts of the Houses of Commons and Lords and go straight to video and a transcript of any given moment and share that and post it to friends or the public as necessary. This is a really great tool, when you see something that you care about, for getting other people to care about it as well. The way they did this was partly by partnership with the BBC, partly using transcripts from the British Parliament, and partly--to line up the moments in video and transcripts--by getting the broad English public to play a computer game they developed to align moments in the video with moments in the transcript.
That's the sort of thing whereby external organizations can do really great things to support Parliament.
There are all sorts of examples in other countries. In the U.S. there are foundations like Sunlight Foundation, the Participatory Politics Foundation, MAPLight, Project Vote Smart. Several news organizations are doing very interesting things in this space: the Guardian, The New York Times. I could talk about Canada as well, but I fear that I'm rambling, so we'll keep this a little bit shorter.
If external organizations can do things that are quite helpful to Parliament, there are also many ways in which Parliament should aim to help out external efforts like these. There are three main ways I want to talk about, in terms of cultural ways, technical ways, and legal ways.
Culturally, that simply means being open to the idea of interacting more with people on the outside who are interested in what you're doing and want to, in some sense, collaborate. That means, for example, that if an organization like the Library of Parliament has concerns over accuracy of other sources of information, perhaps it's in the mission of the library to proactively engage people to improve the accuracy of parliamentary information.
On the technical side--
Oh, I thought my timer was malfunctioning, a technical malfunction.
On the technical side--I'll avoid jargon entirely--there are easy technical ways for organizations to make it easier for their information to be shared, repurposed, reused.
In the legal sense--when I talk about crown copyright, occasionally my jaw clenches and my eyes narrow--essentially, information like the proceedings of the House and the Senate should be available for other people to republish and reuse. This seems like a natural point to me. Right now they're under a variety of legal restrictions that should not exist.
Very briefly, in my last 30 seconds, in terms of the recommendations of this committee, what I'd like to see in the short term is a recommendation like the one in the U.K. Parliament 2020 report, that parliamentary institutions consider reuse, repurposing, and sharing of their work when putting it forward. In the medium term, I'd love to see innovation from Parliament and communications outside of the monolithic tree or redesign, and a third-party organizational ecosystem come up.
Of course, the long-term one I've talked about is only one small piece of the puzzle, but I'd love to see a Parliament that's more effective at communicating and engaging Canadians of all ages.
My name is Cate McCready.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this discussion.
It's an honour and a privilege to have the chance to bring the forum to your consultations here today.
I'm joined by a former alumnus, whom you'll hear from very shortly, but I'd also like to refer to the presence of our executive director, as well as our manager of programs, both of whom serve as full-time staff and without whom our organization simply would not exist.
I am a volunteer chair of the national organization. We are the national foundation, and our forum program, which so many of you are aware of and have been remarkably supportive of, is our premier program that we run with Canadian youth around the country.
The Foundation for the Study of Processes of Government in Canada was established in 1975 as a bilingual, non-partisan educational experience for Canadian high school and CEGEP students. The Forum for Young Canadians is our flagship program, as I mentioned, and we focus on engaging youth, bringing them into an environment where their opinions and their observations matter as they relate to the democratic process and the institutions that serve that process in Canada.
The forum's experiential learning program continues to be responsive to the needs of today's youth, with learning objectives, outcomes, and core competency development. But it's also something that we're learning from, in light of your study particularly. The rapidity of change and how youth are talking to each other—how they're framing their information, how they're framing their dialogue among themselves, their peers, and leaders within their community—is changing so exponentially quickly that we as an organization are finding ourselves on the cusp of adapting to that change almost on a regular monthly basis, as we learn as well about how youth are engaging each other.
The student participants have a chance to hone their leadership skills. We focus on attracting community leaders into the program—people who are already engaged in a certain dynamic within their school or community—so the kind of dialogue the forum offers these students from across the country is very much leadership motivated. We have an engaged youth voice within our program that I think makes our program unique.
In realizing the forum experience, the foundation works with partners: Exchanges Canada, who fund the travel for our students; we have sponsors who cover the overall operations of our organization; and parliamentarians and senators, who are, as I mentioned earlier, incredibly supportive of this program. We interact with more than 5,000 mayors across the country. We are involved also with the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians. We have an outreach and marketing program that engages 7,000 schools across the country.
When we look at how students are learning, and the messages and lessons they have taught us in how to engage with them, the physical presence of students coming together and spending time together is irreplaceable. We appreciate that, and that's really the forum legacy. It is a unique proposition. In fact, over recent years, we have amended that program dynamic into pre-forum or prior-to-forum arrival, into ongoing work at the forum, and post-forum activities, to maintain a certain level of engagement, and to transfer information from the student participants into our learning factor, in terms of what they're taking away and how we need to ameliorate our programming.
I'm going to very briefly offer some recommendations and then turn it over to Corey, because I think his expertise in youth thinking these days is pretty relevant.
I think for this committee's particular work...and I know you've heard this from other presenters, but there's never going to be one solution in how we extract engagement from the parliamentary and democratic process in this country. It's not a question of just website learning. It's a question of a full approach to youth, and finding them where they are, engaging them where they are, and using the technologies in as nimble, efficient, and timely a way as youth are adapting to them and adopting them.
I spent some time this week on the parliamentary library website. It was a pleasure to be there, but it took this for me to go back to that website, and I'm somebody who engages in the parliamentary process, both in my professional and personal life. But I thought a number of things in looking at that engagement in terms of the stories that are maybe not getting told there.
While the library has a physical presence here in Ottawa, it is in fact Canada's national library. Looking at its framework in terms of how it engages in communities, how it tells its story in a virtual and realistic way I think is something for this committee to think about. How could that programming be developed and exemplified over the long term using technologies, such as what we've heard about from openparliament.ca?
I think it's important as well that you not negate the opportunity to find venues for youth to come together around democratic processes and learning, not only in the context of Ottawa but also back in their own communities. Look at how the library can help facilitate some of that.
On that note, I'm going to turn it over to my colleague, Corey.
Thanks for having me here. My name is Corey Willard. I am a student here at the University of Ottawa, and I am also a Forum alumni.
I will be wearing a number of hats today, given that I was a student and I do a lot of volunteer work through the program. When I was in high school, I was very interested in politics, without really understanding how it all worked. We did not really talk about it much at my high school in Alexandria. It was more important for us to play hockey and to get good grades. I can tell you anything you want to know about that.
I also do a lot of work for non-profit organizations, such as AJEFO. Its approach is somewhat different. That organization tries to visit schools. That is also the case with members of the bar. Every year, a law student does a series of school visits in Ottawa. As Cate said, face-to-face interaction is very important. That is what students want. It is important to keep in mind that they spend many hours a day sitting at a desk waiting for someone to teach them the subject matter. Giving them an opportunity to get involved every now and then, as the Forum for Young Canadians does, is key.
My experience with the forum opened my eyes. As I already told you, I did not really know how the political system worked. Put yourself in my shoes: sitting at home, watching CBC or CTV in the evening, and when I came across question period, all I saw were people on opposing sides confronting one another. If I had behaved that way in class, I would not be here today.
But when I visited Parliament, I saw how much different the reality was. Politics is a culture unto itself, with its own members. People really do talk to one another, as we are doing now, and they work together. And I had no idea how all that worked before I got involved with the forum. I went back to my community and told my friends how interesting it all was. Since they were into hockey, I told them that one committee was talking about subsidizing a team. They found that pretty interesting.
In my view, the Library of Parliament could also impress upon young Canadians that, regardless of whether or not you want to become involved in politics, it still affects us all. That is a crucial message. You can be non-partisan and still see that one party favours one solution while another party has a completely different approach. You can ask yourself why they think the way they do and how you, as an individual, can make a decision that is not forced on you.
I spend several hours every week at the forum. I see students, who, like me, are from a rural community. It is a shock when they come here for the first time. Multiculturalism in cities is very important. In my class, for instance, only one or two students belonged to a minority group. Furthermore, as Michael mentioned, it is easier to engage young people in politics today thanks to technology.
Before I got involved with the forum, in Grade 11, I had a basic idea of what the charter was but no idea how it worked. One of my law professors at the University of Ottawa helped me with that. We chose a case involving PETA, one you may remember. It had to do with an aboriginal band up north, near Iqaluit, that was hunting seals in 1989. I presented the facts to the students. Aboriginal students often participate in the forum. I explained to them that the federal government had passed a law stipulating that no aircraft could fly over the area to take pictures at an altitude of less than 2,000 feet. Some of them were on PETA's side, while others argued that it was a cultural issue.
I think that is the kind of discussion we need to encourage among young people. I think the Library of Parliament can help groups like the Forum for Young Canadians but can also help school boards obtain accurate information.
I apologize for going a few minutes long. Thank you very much.
Absolutely. Thanks for the question.
As I mentioned during the “talking very quickly” phase of my remarks earlier, I think there are three barriers toward repurposing: cultural, technical, and legal.
From a technical standpoint, frankly, I don't think technical detail is necessarily warranted here. I'll just say the technical effort required to make that parliamentary information shareable is non-zero, but usually not extensive, and certainly IT departments will know what it means to make information shareable to third parties.
In terms of recommendations, one of the items in the U.K. Parliament 2020 report essentially recognizes that information should be able to follow people where they are on the web and be usable by different sources, and simply that Parliament should take that into account when making information available. It's also important to recognize legal barriers, since, by default, all information put online is covered under crown copyright, so it cannot legally be repurposed. For example, to republish verbatim transcripts of goings-on in the Senate is not currently legal. Similarly, to republish official photos of members of Parliament of the House and of the Senate is also not currently permitted. I think this is silly. These are legal restrictions that serve only to stifle innovation, and these sorts of licensing restrictions should absolutely be kept in mind when making parliamentary information available.
Just before I left my office to come here today, I thought about how much people use online chat rooms.
The chat room dynamic, this kind of third schism of community discussion, is pretty prevalent, and there may be an opportunity for Parliament to look at working with students, schools, schools boards, professors, and teachers to frame chat room dynamic around topical public discourse that's taking place in the parliamentary dynamic. It may be an opportunity to make politics interactive, both in the context of parliamentarians, but also among classrooms around the country. Technology allows us that kind of immediacy in a way that I think needs to be explored.
I respect that it has to be managed well and carefully. I'm not recommending just “blogaramas” or anything, but I think that dynamic of where youth in Canada are playing, participating, and talking to each other needs to be brought into that parliamentary library website. So I could see a program that could be serviced as well by the leadership of parliamentarians and senators in the context of nominating schools to participate throughout the year; reminding folks that even though Parliament may not be sitting, constituencies are alive and well; talking with students about what goes on during constituency weeks; framing their ideas around what they think parliamentarians should be doing during constituency weeks or how they feel about particular committee work.
I think there's a terribly sad lapse, to Corey's point, around the appreciation for the work that does go on in the parliamentary process, particularly within committees. I think there's a sad lack of real engagement of Canadians of all types and ages in terms of understanding and appreciating it. When I look back at my learning, I wasn't taught that when I went to school. I came to learn later on how intrinsic the parliamentary committee process is.
So that may be just one simple opportunity to set up dialogues, online chats, with schools throughout the week, throughout the year, to draw people into the parliamentary process from their own living rooms and classrooms.
I just want to thank our guests for being here today, for this dialogue, and for their important contributions.
I will just make a remark first about the Forum. I appreciate the presentation from the Forum today. Our challenge today is just this. You understand that what we're trying to do here is engage citizens in the parliamentary process. I know when I grew up there just wasn't much available there. I didn't get much growing up, regrettably.
I commend the Forum for finding a way to bring young people here to Ottawa, for changing their perspective. And if Mr. Willard is an example of the graduates of your program, it's very commendable to see the impact your program has had. I know there are many.
I thank you for a very effective presentation today and for what you've done. Our challenge here evolves around this word “change”. When I came here we were using cellphones. Then we were introduced to these things. In fact, I just pulled up openparliament.ca on here and it timed out. These tools are new to us.
Now, around the table we think we're young, and of course we have young men. We scared some of the youth off. You have a backer like Mr. Clarke, who is a very young person, who was at the table here with us. We all think we're young here. The challenge is that things are changing so quickly. Around here we have a little phrase that I think most of us relate to: everybody is in favour of progress; it's change they don't like.
We're faced with communications that are changing so quickly. Some of us are struggling to keep up here. You just added on openparliament.ca My Twitter, and I'm just learning to tweet. We've been on that for a few months here now. At the insistence of one of my interns I needed to do this, and I'm actually enjoying it. But it's a whole new realm of communication.
Madam Hughes mentioned elementary schools. You mentioned engaging on chat rooms. I've never been in a chat room; that's a strange place to me. I haven't been there.
When you talk about engaging at elementary schools, to some of us around here that may be a new concept because we're thinking about university and high school.
Actually, if you look at technology today, you have a lot of grandparents who are looking for the eight-year-old to come and connect the electronic devices in the home and teach them how to communicate online. So I very much appreciate what you're doing here in both realms. We need to engage people because our world is still personal. People have to communicate, and all good things actually happen from people working together. But the tools are changing; the tools do change the way you work--they really do.
I applaud what you've done with openparliament.ca, recognizing that you're not trying to solve all the world's problems. There may be challenges in doing it en français. I think that would be very commendable.
For example, I just learned something today. As I opened that page I saw on the front page a little remark about “favourite word”. It's causing us to think a little bit differently about what we do. I just found out my favourite word apparently is health, which wouldn't surprise our former minister of state for public health.
These tools are necessary for us. I commend you for what you're doing, and I think in forming our discussion around the table here we're very well advised.
My question, Mr. Mulley, is this. Did you present a written presentation to this committee? If you haven't, I think we would be very open to receiving one.
Oh. Democracy is breaking out all over.
Thank you very much.
Firstly, perhaps Mr. Mulley wants to finish whatever he wanted to say with regard to the three areas that he wanted....
Have you finished what you had there that got cut off? Because the one other thing that I guess I would like your help on is in terms of what you would see--all three of the witnesses--as really the low-hanging fruit of things that Parliament could get on with very quickly. It comes to mind that committees would be webcast and that each committee would have a website with a little profile of each of the members and an easy way to find the previous reports and all the testimony.
One of the things that we had hoped to do at the privacy, information, and ethics committee was an e-consultation to ask Canadians what would be the most valuable things for government to do; you can't talk about being user friendly without talking to users. I wondered whether you thought this committee should be doing an e-consultation with regard to how we open Parliament. Mr. Nanos did a sampling of what was important to Canadians, but to have an open process, I think an e-consultation would certainly make me happy.
Unfortunately, on the ethics committee request, the Liaison Committee decided to decline the budget for it, but seeing that the Senate is so rich, it might be easier for us to get the money at this joint committee than it was trying to get it for a House of Commons committee.
Just let us know what you think.
Thank you, Chair, and thank you, witnesses.
Mr. Willard said the magic word, and it's “marketing”. If the object is to get people interested and involved, the principles of marketing have to be applied. We are notoriously inept at that. That's not our business.
As Senator Stratton was obliquely referring to, the Senate is involved at the moment in an effort to do exactly that, and has made some strides in it.
Carolyn, the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources has its own website, which is getting a lot of hits and doing very well.
Mr. Bélanger referred to a huge problem with respect to this kind of media. This is a new medium that is not in any way susceptible or subject to regulation of any kind. We're used to being able to say you have to give equal time, you can't say that, you have to publish the whole thing, don't edit, you took that out of context. None of that applies in this enormously powerful new medium. So the taste that exists on Mr. Mulley's website is Mr. Mulley's taste, period. Frank could do this tomorrow afternoon, if they wanted to. So we have to deal with that. It's a fact, because it's not regulatable.
But I'm surprised to hear you say that there's a legal impediment to your reproducing something that goes on in Parliament. Everything is legal unless some place says it isn't. Do you know where it says that it isn't legal for you? Is this a common concept of copyright of which I am unaware? Somebody else asked you the question: newspapers publish verbatim transcripts from sections of Hansard all the time, so why can't you?