Archive for April, 2011

OPEN GOVERNMENT: IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

You would think that if ever there was a time to talk about open government in Canada, it would be now.  After all, this election was triggered by a contempt of parliament motion resulting from the Harper government’s failure to disclose information to the House of Commons–a dubious first in Canadian (and perhaps Commonwealth) history. 

Yet so far, after a week of campaigning, the only party leader to even mention open government has been Liberal Michael Ignatieff. This is disappointing, since the first week in an election campaign is when parties try to frame their narrative, but not really surprising–and open government activists have only themselves to blame.

If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks.  And yet,  a compelling, street level narrative to help create political space for such dramatic change is still missing in action.

Tomorrow, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff marks a more positive first in Canadian history as he unveils his party’s platform live on the internet  and takes online questions from Canadians. Details leaked through various news outlets suggest that the platform will feature a number of  open government commitments. 

The Liberals released an  open government position paper  last October, so it’s a safe bet that their platform will not have have many surprises; although one of the leaked tidbits, a “people’s question period”, suggests the party may have held back a few of their more intriguing proposals to give tomorrow’s announcement an air of freshness.

It will be interesting to see if Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and help create political space for a debate of open government during the last four weeks of this campaign.

It is no longer enough for tecchies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves  about the virtues of open government.  Let’s not kid anybody, open government is all about politics.

Open government is not a bureaucratic or technical issue. From the decision to move forward and make data available, to the choice of data, to the terms of use, to more citizen engagement, all these are highly political decisions and, in Canada, would involve the consent of Treasury Board and cabinet.

Anyone wanting to see government opening up, needs to explain why it matters in a way that is easily understood. They have to move the discussion out of the boardroom and into the kitchen, and they have to do it now.

A little over a week ago the government of Canada fell because it was too secretive. The question is will the open government movement in Canada  seize the moment, or will this historic opportunity to engage Canadians on a re-think of the foundations of Canadian parliamentary democracy be wasted.

INSIDE THE WAR ROOM:THE MEDIA UNIT

Friday, April 1st, 2011

One of the most important functions of the campaign war room is to monitor the media in real time.  Every story, every clip and every broadcast is read, watched and heard and summarized.  To borrow a metaphor from the new computer lingo, the media reporting represents a cloud and clouds tend to drift and rarely, if ever, drifting back to the same position in the sky. 

The Media unit has to see both in detail and overall where the cloud is heading and whether it is darkening or letting more sun shine on the campaign below.  More importantly, the Media unit has to make sure that the senior campaign team have the media meteorological forecast as soon as possible. The campaign managers and the senior advisors will be doing a thousand other things and have to rely on others to keep them up-to-date.  The internal e-mail traffic in the war room is unrelenting: it is not unusual to have 15 to 30 messages per minute.

In a marked difference from earlier campaigns, in 2011 new media has become the dominant tool in terms of media response. It is not just Twitter or its variations. You can set alerts into Google news, Yahoo news or even proprietary aggregation programs that will let you know when stories break. Though of course the best way is still to talk to the reporter before he or she even files the story.  The best Media and Issue Management workers “know” long before the story goes on line. 

If a story breaks into the news cycle, a scramble begins to counter, correct, corroborate or deny. This is where the Issue Management team kicks in. The Issue Management manager, once alerted, will unleash the researchers first.  The facts have to be right – right from the start of any response. Facts in politics are extraordinarily elusive.  It is surprising at first how much of what is “known” is skewed, incomplete and just plain wrong.  With a bit of experience, one quickly learns to trust nothing until it has been researched, double-checked and re-checked, and even then you need to be wary because the sources might be suspect, mistakes are made when people are in a hurry and most fatally partisan researchers will read or hear a positive interpretation into the information which can distort their report, even if the report is just a collection of web links to previous stories.  The Issue Management researchers will at best have 15 minutes to get the “facts” and the background.

The emergence of the Internet has complicated matters in that time has become very elastic.  For example, the story of Stephen Harper’s “agreement” with the Bloc Quebecois in 2004 or a speech in 2003 can take on a contemporary life of its own long after even the people directly involved have forgotten all but the most elementary details.   

Historians will one day debate the “facts” around the 2004 “coalition” letter at length, meanwhile let’s get back to the war room and how it likely responded to Mr. Duceppe’s accusations.   

In that case, following the necessary due diligence, the Issue Management manager probably presented the findings to the senior campaign advisors who debate quickly their significance and formed a preliminary response.  The senior campaign advisors, typically 4 to 5 individuals, will have among themselves over 100 years of experience so matters moved swiftly. 

Typically then, the recommendation goes “to the bus,” the leader’s entourage.  The campaign manager alone will do the call. A lot rests on his – and it is usually a “his” shoulders – it is personal, urgent, important and consequential.  Frankly there is no room for mercy. None asked, none given.

With the basic response strategy agreed upon between the war room and “the bus,” the campaign advisors will craft the media messages.  They will be short, terse, and consistent and pointed.  The lines will then go back to “the bus” for final approval and a bit of a tweak and may be a little off because the “bus” folks usually do not have all the facts the war room folks have but believe they have the better instincts and experience– sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no.”  The leader as the one to be ultimately responsible for any media release – for which he or she will be held responsible for the rest of their political lives – has the final say.  

Then the pushback begins. The Issue Management managers will start with calling up the higher echelons of news editors and television producers in order to pave the way for the Media Unit personnel to start phoning reporters to let them know that a media release is due in moments.  Everyone will be a little edgy.  A media release can bounce well or bounce badly, or just be ignored completely. Reporters are inherently skeptical about party communications and fearful for their reputations if they are seen to being “played.” Still the great void which the modern media apparatus has created must be filled.  The spice must flow. And it does until the next issue appears on the event horizon.