Archive for December, 2011

FEDERAL COMMITMENT JUST THE FIX FOR CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

The announcement last week by federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel that the federal government was kick-starting a process to develop a new long term strategy for public infrastructure investments was quickly dismissed by critics as smoke and mirrors.

With the President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at his side, the minister announced a three-step, year-long plan designed to take stock of the situation and align federal, provincial and municipal infrastructure efforts into a common strategy by 2014 when the current suite of federal programs expires.

But with Canada’s infrastructure deficit topping the $ 100 billion mark  and compounding daily, many had hoped that the federal government would announce something more definitive than studies and intergovernmental consultations.

It would be tempting to dismiss this as just  an example of Ottawa fiddling while our cities crumble. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a
government announced studies and consultations as a way to try and make an issue go away.

This time however, that would be wrong. In fact, last week’s announcement — if followed through – could just be the fix for Canada’s crumbling infrastructure and broken funding system.

Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, no amount of federal foot-dragging or magical thinking is going to make this particular issue go away.

By the time the current programs run their course in a couple of years, Ottawa will have been in the infrastructure funding business for two decades and will have invested over $ 30 billion while leveraging billions more from provincial and municipal governments.

Yet, not only do the problems that spurred the creation of the first infrastructure program in 1993 remain, but they’ve gotten worse with, as the collapse of a Laval overpass a few years ago reminds us, potentially deadly consequences.

In the early1980s, at the start of the cities’ campaign to get federal help for their crumbling infrastructure, the gap stood at about $ 12 billion, by 2007 studies showed the so-called infrastructure deficit had broken through the $100 billion mark. And that’s just for municipal infrastructure.

Add to that the bill for federal and provincial roads, bridges and other assorted structures and it’s easy to understand why no one level of government has claimed ownership of the problem or the solution.

Second, an overhaul of the existing programs is urgently needed.  The current system of short term, ad-hoc programs favours spending on new infrastructure more than repair, and because the focus is often on getting shovels in the ground quickly, it also tends to favour spending on second and even third tier priorities.

The minister’s commitment to taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the old programs should lead to a basic re-think of how Ottawa delivers infrastructure funding.

Third, mayors and councillors have rightly been pushing for this kind of long term thinking from Ottawa for the last ten years and, without any new funding programs in the pipeline to act as sweeteners it’s not likely they will let the government off the hook without something tangible to bring home.

Fourth, it is in the provinces’ interest to accept the minister’s invitation and come to the table and have a say on how federal infrastructure largesse will be doled out, first to try and secure the largest possible share of federal dollars for provincial infrastructure, and second, in order to finally have a say in what the programs will look like.

Finally, the growing pressure on the Harper government to deal with a number of major infrastructure challenges – the replacement of the Champlain Bridge comes to mind– gives the minister and the government a powerful incentive to try and spread the fiscal and political burden for Canada’s infrastructure building and repair more evenly across all jurisdictions. This should be a major incentive for real progress.

But what of FCM President Berry Vrbanovic’s comment that last week’s announcement amounted to “a promise to put aside band aid solutions and find the cure for the infrastructure deficit once and for all”?  Wishful thinking on his part?

I’m not sure that the infrastructure minister  would  echo those words exactly–we all remember Paul Martin’s promise to fix health care “for a generation”.  But his commitment to engage all levels of government in a collective re-think of how we finance our roads, bridges and water works, is pragmatic, gutsy and long-overdue.  And it may just work.

DEBATE ON FEDERAL OPEN GOVERNMENT PLANS NEEDED NOW

Monday, December 5th, 2011

The article by Elizabeth Thompson ran in iPolitics a few weeks ago under the headline “Twitter, Facebook and social media ‘critical’ to government, says Clement.” It was one of those stories that sail just under the mainstream media radar–an anodyne little item that didn’t make the grade in the newsrooms of the national outlets. 

Speaking after an appearance before the Senate Official Languages Committee, Treasury Board President Tony Clement told iPolitcs that he wants to launch a pilot project to use social media to consult and engage Canadians more on government policies. He added that he intends to push forward with Treasury Board’s open data initiative where government information is shared openly online.

Yawn—right?

Wrong.

This is one story with legs. Or at least, it’s a story that should have legs. While it may not be readily apparent, few initiatives now on the government’s drawing board have the potential to transform our democracy as much as this one.

And this is a story that anyone who believes in the concepts and merits of open government or government 2.0 needs to take stock of and react to-now. 

Senate reform, more MPs for rapidly growing provinces, amount to tinkering at the margins of our democratic system when compared to the transformative potential of genuine online engagement and its institutional implications.

Clement, who is one of the most active MPs on Twitter, is quoted in the article as saying that the opportunity “to use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens…is a big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government. It is very important for the future.”

He’s right. The problem is that there have been no conversations on what that conversation could or should look like.

The absence of a public debate on the merits and implications of using technology to open government up and engage more with citizens means that what has the potential to transform our institutions also runs the risk of being used to shore up the status quo.

The problem is that our system is built around incrementalism—small cautious steps that don’t rock the boat are what garner promotions in Ottawa, not proposals for sweeping institutional reform.

And citizen consultation is nothing new in government. There are well-staffed units in most federal departments that do nothing but consult and engage with citizens and interest groups. 

But using new online tools to make these consultations easier does not mean we’ve embraced Government 2.0. Giving outdated concepts and approaches a fresh coat of paint will only hide the rust and cover up the cracks.   

One of the challenges is that our current system of ministerial and bureaucratic accountability is not designed to easily integrate solutions that run counter to formal advice.  Alternatives or contrary opinions tend to be relegated to the public environment scans of memos to cabinet, not recommended action.

Designing new government online strategies to operate on the old institutional and accountability platforms would be like putting a Ferrari body on a ’72 Pinto drive train—it’ll look nice in the garage, but don’t take it for a spin.

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. It would also amount to a dramatic re-think of our democracy.

But without a compelling main-street narrative to create political space and demand for real change and without any obvious external champions for this cause the prospects of a transformative open government agenda being implemented any time soon are dim.  

Open government is not a bureaucratic issue–open government is all about politics.  And political leadership and decisions will be what make it happen…or not.  

It’s not enough for techies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves about the virtues of new digital technologies in opening up government. It’s time for Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and kick-start the debate, explain why open government matters and what the cost of half-hearted reforms would be.

A few weeks ago, Treasury Board President Tony Clement hinted at his vision: a connected more collaborative government, a bureaucracy empowered to engage directly with Canadians, the sharing of data to foster innovation. He also said Treasury Board officials were now busy developing “guidelines” that will frame this vision.

The first Treasury Board installment on that vision was released last month: a rule-bound straight jacket of a social media policy to govern public service online activities. Not an auspicious start.

Anyone that wants to see government open up better grab the perch offered by the minister now, before government’s blueprint is fully set and reputations become wed to it.