Posts Tagged ‘Harper government’

EXTREME WEATHER ADAPTATION: PAYING THE PIPER

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Remember the oil filter commercial from the 1980s — the one where the mechanic suggested paying a bit more up front for a better oil filter to avoid expensive repairs later?

That was good advice — policy wonks would call it following the precautionary principle.  It applies as much to regular maintenance on cars as to climate change mitigation—measures to reduce greenhouse gases–and adaptation—policies designed to harden and adapt infrastructure to extreme weather events.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the latter, it seems the federal government decided some time ago its policy engine didn’t need an oil filter.

But if any doubt still lingered in Canada about the critical importance of hardening our infrastructure against extreme weather, it should be put to rest by the disaster that struck southern Alberta this week.

In addition to its immediate and terrifying impact on people and property, the effects of extreme weather linger much longer as their economic shock waves are felt long after the crisis has passed.

According to a report from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce the damage from the Alberta floods could strip a full percentage point from Canada’s economic growth this year.

Then there’s the cost of cleaning up the mess–which will include not only residential reconstruction but also major repairs to highway and other public infrastructure—that’s expected to top $6 billion.

That means any hopes the Alberta government had of balancing its budget in the short term are shot. And at a minimum, the post-flood clean up raises questions about the federal government’s own plans for near-term fiscal balance as Ottawa will no doubt be called in to help in the reconstruction of key economic infrastructure.

With the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other credible national and international organizations forecasting that extreme weather occurrences will increase in number and scope, one would think that mitigating their impact would be a priority for all governments.

Unfortunately, as the tortuous path followed by climate change negotiations will attest, that’s not been the case.

The economic dislocation that some fear would follow the adoption of stringent carbon reduction measures may help explain the lack of meaningful progress in the area of climate change mitigation. But there is no economic cover for inaction on adaptation, especially when the government of Canada spends billions each year on unrelated infrastructure projects.

The best explanation for the absence of a federal infrastructure adaptation strategy probably comes from a report examining the federal-municipal relationship, released three weeks ago by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The FCM report describes a relationship built around short-term considerations more likely to produce photo-ops than lasting structural fixes.

The report doesn’t assess blame on the current government, but says the mess stems form an outdated and broken federal system that blurs accountabilities–often leaving the provinces out of the loop—and encourages boutique federal programs that fail to get at the root of the problem.

Many in the municipal sector hoped that Transport minister Denis Lebel’s six-month consultations last year on a long-term infrastructure plan might provide the platform for such a strategy.

FCM and a number of other organizations including the Insurance Bureau of Canada used the consultations to call for a long-term infrastructure plan that would facilitate extreme weather adaptation in cities.

But when the federal government announced its $ 53 billion 10-year infrastructure program in the last Budget, it was silent on the question of adaptation.

The devastation that flood waters visited on communities in southern Alberta was a stark reminder of how vulnerable our cities have become to extreme weather events.  Seeing the economic capital of Alberta battered and paralyzed by the murky waters of the Saskatchewan River was sobering.

The federal government is now measuring options available to it as it considers its response to this latest weather-related disaster.

The question now is whether the scenes of devastation that played out in southern Alberta will be enough to create the political room for a fundamental re-think of the federal role in extreme weather adaptation.

In keeping with the Harper government’s focus on the bottom line, it may be time for advocates to start framing climate change adaptation as preventive maintenance for Canada’s economic engine.  With extreme weather events on the rise, we can pay now, or we can pay the piper later.

MEDIA RELATIONS 2.0: E-MAILING IT IN

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

A little exercise for you: Next time you open your paper or surf the news online, count the number of times that stories concerning the Harper government carry e-mailed comments attributed to government or party spokespersons. Then count the number of times that such comments do not come with the e-mail qualifier.

I counted at least half a dozen news stories last week alone where a government spokesperson provided comment by way of e-mailed media lines. If you add Twitter to the mix, the majority of official replies to direct queries or emerging stories now come in digital format.

Live, on the record (or even on background) conversations between a reporter and a media relations officer or spokesperson are now the exception. E-mailing replies to media queries has become the standard operating procedure in federal media relations shops across the country.

Much has been said about the current government’s centralized message-control that would spur this robotic approach to media relations. What’s worrisome is that the practice is becoming more prevalent in other organizations, private and nonprofit alike.

Whenever an organization is now pressed by a reporter on a fast-breaking story with problematic undertones, the default response is to e-mail talking points that more often than not have only a vague familial connection to the questions being asked or the issue.

This is one of the subtle unintended consequences of the rise of digital communications: the convergence of enabling technology (digital messaging), long-standing suspicion (and fear) of the media, and dwindling resources and growing time-pressures in traditional newsrooms–call it media relations 2.0.

So, what does media relations 2.0 mean for corporate communications?

Deflecting or bridging are well known media relations techniques, and there was a time when media lines were crafted to help spokespeople deflect and bridge their way to a particular corporate take on an issue.

The difference is that in the past, these lines were used as part of the two-way dynamic of interviews and question and answer sessions that tested their validity and often overtook them. In media relations 2.0, talking points have become take-it-or-leave propositions.

But just because organizations are getting away with this, and everybody seems to be doing it, doesn’t make it a good communication practice.

For one thing, this new approach to media relations only contributes to suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the hack and flack divide.

It is a sign of an organization that can’t see the strategic forest for the tactical trees when talking points grudgingly inserted by reporters like non-sequiturs in news stories are viewed as more valuable than developing relations of trust with those same journalists.

Basically, in the media relations 2.0 paradigm, marking each and every story with unadulterated corporate DNA is more important than ensuring you have the reputational capital to carry the day when an e-mailed or Tweeted reply just won’t be enough.

Media relations 2.0 is also fundamentally unimaginative and reactive.

At its core is a mistrust of the mainstream media and a lack of understanding of its role and importance in framing public perceptions, and more fundamentally, of how it works.

As a result, great corporate stories remain untold or are poorly told, or are told by someone else.

The upside is that unlike the old-fashioned media relations I engaged in as a government flack in the late 90s, media relations 2.0 is safe–there’s no danger of being misquoted or losing control of an interview.  The problem is, it’s like the safety of standing on the sidelines during your high school formal: no one turned you down, but neither did you dance.

CITIES’ REPORT LIFTS CURTAIN ON BROKEN FEDERAL SYSTEM

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

Federal politicians attending the meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver last weekend might be forgiven for feeling a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

For years the FCM conference had been the place where prime ministers and wannabe prime ministers came to lavish mayors and their cities, towns and villages with promises of federal programs and federal dollars.

It was also the place for the heaping of praise and gratitude on prime and other ministers for delivering on said promises.

On rare occasions, like Paul Martin’s 2002 New Deal speech, some of them spoke of fixing a broken system that was keeping Canadian cities at the back of the global pack. But the expectation seemed to be that the really good applause line would always be about the money.

Political handlers and speechwriters in Ottawa must have been scrambling when they received advance copies last week of an FCM report that emphatically states that it’s really not about the money.

In fact, the FCM report, titled The State of Canada’s Cities and Communities 2013suggests that Ottawa’s chequebook fixation is really what’s wrong with the system.

The report says that until the federal government owns up to this and starts measuring success not by how many dollars it spends but by how many problems it fixes, Canada’s cities—and by extension the country–will continue to struggle.

Coming from an organization and a sector that over the last decade has arguably been the most successful in advocating for more federal spending this can seem a little odd if not downright ungrateful.

It’s actually gutsy, smart and important.  Let’s look at why.

It’s important because FCM’s report forces us to look behind the curtain and take the full measure of the Great Oz that is how Ottawa decides.

While the report pulls its punches somewhat and avoids detailed critiques of federal programs aimed at cities, it does paint a picture of a system built around short-term considerations and lubricated by political expediency.

And this should matter to all Canadians, particularly those who care how their tax dollars are spent.

It’s also smart.

FCM is careful—and rightly so–not to point fingers at any one government or political party.

At the root of the problem is not pandemic venality but a 21st century political relationship governed by a 19th century Constitution.

Under our Constitution, the federal government has no direct role vis-à-vis local governments, but this has not kept it from using its spending power to intervene in municipal affairs, particularly in the area of infrastructure funding.

It’s not surprising. After all investing in roads, bridges, wastewater systems and even bocce courts gives even the most fiscally conservative MP something tangible to write about in their householder.

It’s great to talk about trade deals and fighter jets and tough on crime policies, but when you want to explain to your constituents what it is exactly you do for them, it’s nice to be able to point to something with three dimensions from time to time.

Let’s not kid ourselves, therein lies the political appeal of the federal-municipal relationship.

But while the announcement of a 10-year funding program in the last federal budget will keep MPs well stocked with ribbons to cut and signs to post for at least two election cycles, it would put FCM’s advocacy caravan on blocks for a decade. Unless, that is, FCM opened another front in the federal-municipal relationship—which its report does.

But most of all, the report is gutsy.

It would have been easy for FCM to sugar coat its analysis to spare federal sensitivities. There will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth in more than a few federal offices,  but the gentler, kinder version federal officials would have preferred would  also have missed the mark.

The report names the problem: An outdated system that gives governments cover for short-term, politically motivated policies and inaction in the face of growing cross-jurisdictional policy challenges

Worse, the report says the current system helps create the illusion of action through the proliferation of boutique federal programs that provide visibility but little in the form of accountability.

So what’s the answer?

Rightly, FCM rejects any talk of opening up the constitution. It tried that in the early 90’s and it was a dead end.

Instead, it calls for a clear federal policy and accountability framework to govern federal programs in this area.

In practical terms, it would mean that federal policies would come with a clear expression of the federal interest, measurable outcomes and an incentive to design programs that actually do what they’re supposed to do.

It sounds simple, but achieving it won’t be.

Judging by the speeches delivered by federal politicians at the FCM conference, it will take time for them to digest what the cities’ new agenda means for them and their respective narratives.

FCM invited us to peek behind the curtain. It’s challenge is now keeping it open.

TOWARD A DEPARTMENT OF INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Monday, March 25th, 2013
Where is Canada going in its somewhat reluctant role as a development donor?  The announcement in last week’s federal budget of the absorption of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) is a curiosity.
What is curious is the a) necessity of the takeover — CIDA was always a Crown corporation attached to DFAIT and b) the seeming lack of understanding in the Pearson building that taking over CIDA means that they will now be consumed by the development business at some cost to whatever global political agenda they may have.
Maintaining the flow of development dollars trumps diplomacy every time. DFAIT is now trapped into becoming a CIDA writ large.  The Pearson building now will have to dedicate its energy not to foreign relations, but to the health of pregnant women in distant lands.  The commandeered CIDA budget in short will dictate their overall priorities. And that, depending on your point of view, may be for the better.
But let’s start with the status quo ante.
DFAIT has been living off past glories for a long time.  Modern communications and an ever expansive foreign policy role for the Prime Minister’s Office (both under Liberal and Conservative governments) have long restricted any meaningful policy role for DFAIT.
Truth is foreign affairs officers manage buildings in countries in order to provide a workable space for, in order of importance, Immigration, CIDA, and  department of Defence officials. As to development issues, they know something, but not more other than the CIDA budget is four times the size of DFAIT’s.
CIDA was created because the mandarins of External Affairs thought they were wasting too much time on third world countries, time better spent in Paris, London, and Washington.
On the other hand, on the international stage, CIDA punches above its weight.  The problem is its weight is about 85 pounds.
As Canada was never a colonial power, it has never felt any post-colonial guilt, and the development budget reflects that, even if it was Lester Pearson who came up with the fairy dust target of 0.7 percent of western country budgets dedicated to aid.
There is no doubt that the agency is beset by numerous design flaws, not the least of which is a scandalous reluctance to hire and promote immigrant Canadians who actually speak the  languages and understand the cultures of the countries in which CIDA operates.
It’s also beset not by the absence of clear development objectives and accountabilities, but by a proliferation of them over the years.
In its early days, CIDA fed a host of Liberal-friendly domestic NGOs, although recently it has been far better balanced between local pork and real international assistance.  Maternal care as per the Muskoka Declaration is now the key priority, but not much thought has gone into the question of how do you assist kids you have helped keep alive after they are five.
The complete untying of aid under Bev Oda is a policy landmark for which she received scant credit. Since then, CIDA has paid far more attention to Canadian businesses abroad (who are investing sustainable money and creating jobs), than DFAIT.
The cynic in me suspects what is really behind this budget move is that DFAIT has not so secretly coveted CIDA’s budget. Conferences are held in Bali on development issues not on keeping pigeons out of the rain gutters of embassy buildings.  The UN wants to talk to Canadians about its annual contribution, currently funded by CIDA, not what we think about peace in the Middle East.
The current political flux, with a caretaker minister at the helm of CIDA and a powerful minister of foreign affairs, makes this move look like a well-timed bank heist.
That said, the optimist in me hopes that the move, as done for example by the US in realigning USAID and the State Department, will give development a higher political priority within the Harper government.
Development, intelligently done, should be a major policy concern for any Canadian government, and not just a plaything for bureaucrats looking for UN jobs and NGOs after a steady stream of airline tickets. A lot of serious thinking has gone into development economics much of it on governance and education as the key drivers of change, all of which has yet to appear seriously in official policy.
The reason development has a reputation for ineffectiveness is largely because the scope of the challenge was grossly under-estimated and the means to address the obstacles to growth largely misunderstood.
Ask yourself if we have failed in a hundred years to address poverty on First Nations reserves, why would anyone think Canada could succeed in an African or Bangladeshi village?
In recent years, CIDA has made progress towards greater international and domestic relevance but not enough to satisfy a suspicious political establishment and a skeptical public.
In his book, While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, Andrew Cohen does a good thing in lamenting and trying to correct Canadian apathy about the rest of the world.
I do not share Cohen’s vision of Trudeau  internationalism, but when hundreds of people wash up on our shores clearly we cannot afford the complacency of thinking we live in Fortress North America. And, at the risk of sounding like a scold, somewhere in the mess of development there is a simple moral duty to help those in need.
Whether the development portfolio now sinks into obscurity or whether it leads Canada’s engagement with the emerging countries of the world, remains a question.
Canada could do with a serious re-thinking of its development plans.  The UK and Sweden have done it, and are making some worthwhile new initiatives.
A bright idea might be to make the merged organization into the Department of International Development and Foreign Affairs.  Perhaps this takeover will spur just that.

MARTIN’S NEW DEAL FOR CITIES HOLDS LESSONS FOR HARPER GOVERNMENT

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

This article first appeared in iPolitics under the title, “Infrastructure Minister has opportunity to strengthen federal-municipal relation.”

This Friday, as mayors and councilors from across Canada gather in Saskatoon for the opening of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) annual conference, some in attendance may note that it marks the 10th anniversary of Paul Martin’s New Deal for cities speech to the same conference, held that year in Hamilton. But it’s not likely.

While not quite up there with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or other oratory landmarks of the 20th century, Martin’s 2002 cities speech did more than get him fired from the Chrétien cabinet. It inspired hope among municipal politicians and urban advocates that Canada’s cities would finally be on the national agenda. Many even suggested that it ushered in a new era of federal-municipal partnership.

Yet, like much of Martin’s ambitious agenda, the New Deal for cities failed to live up to expectations.

Today, with the Harper government working on a new long-term infrastructure program to replace those set to expire—along with other federal transfers—in March 2014, it’s appropriate to ask what lessons the failure of Martin’s vision has for the current government.

To be fair to Paul Martin’s legacy, it is important to note that the New Deal delivered the gas tax transfer, which today pumps two billion dollars a year into city coffers for much-needed infrastructure repairs. But it took a Conservative government to make it permanent.

When it was introduced in 2005, it was as a five-year program, which did little to address the need for funding certainty required for long-term capital investments and planning. Its relatively short-term  nature reflected a high-degree of skittishness on the part of federal finance (and other) officials at the prospect of longer term transfers.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was more sizzle than steak to the New Deal. Any significant federal overture to municipalities along the lines hinted at in his speech was likely to raise the hackles of provincial governments and be largely unworkable, both politically and  constitutionally.

His speech, 10 years later, is rife with generalities. Martin was cautious, refusing to get into specific commitments, unwilling to go all in and truly  embrace—to use one of his favourite words—a transformative relationship with municipal governments and risk being called offside—not by his boss but by provincial premiers.

Yet in its day, the speech resonated because it was the first time in many years that a senior federal politician—one who aspired to the top job, no less—reached out to city governments with so much passion and apparent understanding of the issues they faced.

But if he succeeded in seducing his audience with his vision of a new relationship, Paul Martin failed to consummate it. In part, this was because his tenure was cut short by the election of the Harper government in January 2006. More importantly, it was because there was no meaningful policy framework to support it.

And this brings us back to Friday in Saskatoon. This year, it’s federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel who will deliver the keynote address to the municipal delegates. And while it’s a safe bet it won’t get him fired, his speech will be as important for Canada’s cities as Paul Martin’s.

Lebel is about one third of the way through a process he announced last November to put in place a long-term plan for infrastructure spending in this country. And while a long-term infrastructure deal lacks the excitement of a New Deal, it will likely set the terms and conditions for the federal-municipal
relationship for the next decade and beyond.

With Canada’s cities struggling under the weight of a $120-billion infrastructure deficit, and the expiry of a number of critical federal transfers to cities, including the flagship Building Canada Fund set for March 2014, municipal delegates will hanging on his every word looking for reassurances.

The minister should avoid Paul Martin’s mistakes and the urge to speak in generalities about “the vision thing”.  He should use his remarks to spell out in
detail how the rest of his process will unfold and, most importantly, its policy objective, which should be very simple: eliminating the infrastructure deficit for good–because that has to be the bottom line.

Anything short of a clear commitment to fixing the problem once and for all, will perpetuate the creation of programs that fail to get at the root causes of accelerating infrastructure decay in this country.

The major constant in a 10-year backdrop of shifting federal attitudes toward municipalities has been that policies in this area have largely been dictated by the political circumstances of the day and not on the basis of clear policy considerations and objectives.

The minister now has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and break that cycle. As political oratory it won’t pack the same wallop as Paul Martin’s speech, but the outcome could be as transformative as the promise of the New Deal was bold.

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.

FEDERAL LEADERSHIP, PROVINCIAL SOLUTIONS NEEDED FOR URBAN FIX

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used a tour of eastern Canada originally designed to sell his city as a business destination last week to push his second favourite subject: all that ails Canada’s cities.

The mayor used multiple speaking engagements and media interviews to hammer away at the urgency of fixing the growing imbalance between cities’ responsibilities and their capacity to pay.

He said Canada’s cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task.  And he warned of dire consequences for cities and for the country if that fiscal imbalance is not addressed quickly.

This is not a new hobby horse for Nenshi. In fact this is hardly news at all. He’s been talking about mending Canada’s fraying urban fabric since his election last fall.  And Canada’s other big city mayors have been making exactly the same arguments for years, also calling for stable and predictable funding from Ottawa.

They even had some success. Remember the New Deal for Cities?  Paul Martin’s lofty 2002 pledge of a new relationship with Canada’s cities got him fired from his job as minister of Finance.

More to the point, a few years later, that pledge netted cities the gas tax transfer, which now pumps $ 2 billion per year in city coffers across the country for infrastructure improvements.

Not surprisingly, the gas tax transfer has been immensely popular with mayors and councillors in communities of all sizes.  So popular in fact, that the Harper government last year announced it would become a permanent fixture of fiscal federalism—a kind of equalization program for roads and bridges.

Talk about stable. And you can’t get much more predictable than that. So where’s the problem?

Well, it’s not the one that most of the media outlets who interviewed the Calgary mayor last week led with. 

It’sreally not about cities needing more money to fix their crumbling infrastructure; or about modernizing a municipal fiscal regime better suited to a 19th century agrarian society than one in the throes of global competition; or about needing more federal dollars for affordable housing and transit.

Those are the symptoms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the real problem is that it’s déjà vu all over again.

For anyone who followed the New Deal debate six or seven years ago, reading or watching an interview with mayor Nenshi today is like stepping into a time capsule.  His talking points are virtually the same as those used by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former Toronto mayor David Miller, and countless other municipal politicians before and after.

Back then they resonated and gained traction not only in the media, but with civil society and business groups and even within the federal government–now, not so much.

Six years after the gas tax transfer, and four years after the largest infrastructure program in the history of this country municipal pleas for more federal spending are starting to sound hollow.

There’s a sense in many quarters that when it comes to cities the feds already gave at the office and it’s time to move on.

Yet, mayor Nenshi is right–just as his former colleagues were right a decade ago.  Canada’s cities are struggling when they should be achieving. And with 80 percent of Canadians living in urban areas, if our cities struggle our country struggles.

But the real solutions to the problems faced by Canada’s cities are found in provincial capitals not on Parliament Hill.  Only provinces can fix broken and “outdated” municipal finance systems. Only provinces can change the planning regimes that undermine sustainability.

The fundamental problem has never been about money–at least not federal money.  It has always been about provincial politics and power and recognition, and that’s been a tough nut to crack.

Municipal politicians regularly get admonished by provincial governments that their local administrations are creatures of the province. Which is like saying “I put you here, I can take you out”.

But like it or not, they’re right. That’s the constitutional hand our founding fathers dealt us.

And the mayors are also right in pointing out that the government of Canada has a vested interest–if not a constitutional responsibility–in seeing our cities prosper.

So, how do they break the logjam and work toward lasting fixes?

First, they have to stop focusing only on federal spending (particularly in the current fiscal context). Federal infrastructure spending runs the risk of becoming less of a New Deal and more of a kind of permanent Marshal Plan for cities, and it’s not working. As mayor Nenshi pointed out, billions in federal investments have not fixed the problem.

Second, they need to change their song sheet and strategy. What cities need most from Ottawa now is leadership.

Canada’s mayors need to come together and push for a national vision of urban Canada. And while Ottawa can’t impose its blueprint in an area of provincial jurisdiction, it can lead a collaborative intergovernmental process to define what our cities should look like in 25 years.

Third, they need to seize the opportunity that the 2014 expiry of key transfer programs presents and push for the inclusion of cities on the fed/prov agenda.

Ultimately however, all the mayors can do is create political room for their vision. Only Ottawa can lead the way.

NEW NARRATIVE NEEDED TO INSULATE HARPER’S AGENDA FROM ECONOMIC STORM

Monday, September 19th, 2011

As MPs return from their summer recess, a number of storylines—from Nycole Turmel’s political inexperience to Bob Dechert’s flirtations to turmoil at National Defense HQ–are coming into focus and will bear following.  None will be as important for the future of the government however, as how Prime Minister Harper stickhandles his deficit reduction agenda through a fall sitting that will likely be dominated by sour global economic news.

The Prime Minister has a lot going for him at the start of this session. He enjoys a healthy majority in both the House and Senate and is in the enviable position of being the only non-interim leader of a major party in the House.

With the stronger legislative engine the May 2 election gave him, some observers suggest that the road is clear for an ambitious agenda that includes a massive overhaul of Canada’s crime legislation and policy, Senate reform and a markedly slimmer federal government.

That is far from certain.

While rent-a-cops may be pulling traffic duty on the Opposition benches, they are still in a position to slow the government’s legislative plans, particularly if their arguments gain traction in public opinion.

Majority or not, the Prime Minister runs the risk of seeing his agenda of institutional change run aground if Parliament becomes gridlocked because of worsening economic conditions and political opportunism.

After all, who wants to see their government push Senate reform when the economy is tanking?

For the Prime Minister, how well he finesses this will be measured less by the level of short term political pain than by how well he safeguards his ability to implement key planks of his non-economic platform and lay the foundations for a lasting conservative legacy.

The challenge for Prime Minister Harper and his government this fall will be to craft a narrative and a policy approach that balances political and economic imperatives.

As currently crafted, the dominant story—going from funding roads and bridges to cutting government workers and programs–won’t be an easy one to explain or sell to Canadians.

First, the public can be forgiven for not “getting” this coming policy shift as the same conditions that are now creeping into daily newscasts–a stumbling economy and flat jobs growth–were cited as the reasons for the 2009 stimulus-laden Economic Action Plan.

Second, the story coming from the U.S. is all about stimulus, as president Obama is taking one more kick at the Keynesian can. His massive economic package, unveiled last week, aims at recovering jobs and boosting consumer demand.

While Obama’s approach sets his administration apart from many European governments that have opted for austerity measures, the news from Washington has more immediacy and impact for Canadians than stories from Berlin or Paris.

The task for the Prime Minister and his front bench lies less in attacking the Opposition–of whom the public care little about–than in reassuring Canadians that they have a plan and explaining how it will work to safeguard jobs of which the public cares a great deal about.

With the economic news continuing to be gloomy–the Toronto Dominion bank revised its 2011 growth forecast from 2.8 to 2.2 percent and its 2012 forecast from 2.5 to 1.9 percent—in the next few days look for a subtle shift in the government’s narrative away from strict deficit reduction toward a balanced approach that includes protecting jobs.

If there is no marked improvement in the economic outlook by early November, expect the government to take a page out of Jean Chretien’s 1994-95 playbook and push a new government narrative revolving around cutting unnecessary expenditures—getting our house in order–while spending on public infrastructure and jobs.

While we are not likely to see the stimulus spigots opened to the extent they were under the Economic Action Plan, we might see the renewal of elements of the Building Canada Fund, the government’s flagship infrastructure program.

Although the government’s deficit reduction action plan may be temporarily sidelined as a branding narrative, every indication is that all federal departments and agencies will continue to have all of their spending—program and operations—placed under a microscope, and a scalpel.

A subtle shift in tone and policy will provide political cover for the government’s austerity plans, and more importantly, help keep Prime Minister Harper’s transformative legacy agenda on the rails.

CABINET MAKEUP POINTS TO FOCUSED AGENDA

Friday, May 20th, 2011

One test of the significance of the appointment of a new federal Cabinet is the amount of time in which the personnel choices and portfolio alterations remain newsworthy.   By that measure, the announcement of a new Conservative Cabinet really only lasted one news cycle. The media attention during the build up lasted longer than the interest shown after the fact. 

In large part, the Cabinet did not really change all that much and the changes that did take place were largely predictable once the election results were known.   For example, the sole Conservative MP from Newfoundland, a credible First Nations leader, was a pretty much a given to make the Cabinet cut.  To not make a bad situation worse, Quebec was certainly going to receive additional Cabinet seats as was British Columbia.  Ontario had to be rewarded in much the same way it used to be under Liberal governments.  What does the lack of surprises tell Canadians about Prime Minister Harper’s current assessment of the situation and his intentions moving forward?

A first observation is that the PM probably correctly assessed that the current composition of House of Commons still remains only a minority Conservative government, despite a clear seat majority.  The dramatic rise of the NDP at the disproportionate expense of the Liberal Party represents more of a sudden hail storm rather than a more profound result of “climate change. “  Minority governments one would guess face a risk in any major Cabinet upheaval of creating too many questions as to new faces, new agendas and new potential leaders.  In other words, the Cabinet announced was largely the one that the PM would have announced if he had only won a minority.

The benefit of caution and minor tinkering is the ability to send the message of stability, “business as usual.” For many Canadians that approach provides a level of comfort.  They can rest assured that not much will change for good or for ill.  Given the history of the unintended consequences of government ambitions for “change,” a small “c” conservative approach will likely keep the Harper Cabinet from becoming much of a topic of political let alone public discussion.

Yet the “steady as she goes” approach does have risks. It may potentially be interpreted as complacency and a lack of new ideas to face new challenges.  With the exception of Maxime Bernier in the small business portfolio, it is hard to think of a new Cabinet minister bringing any new ideas to the table, or at least any new ideas with any lasting impact.

John Baird as Foreign Minister will do what he has done well in previous portfolios – slap down the opposition attacks and keep repeating the mantra of the government’s basic competence. 

Ed Fast, the new Minister of International Trade, will almost certainly not address the fundamental weaknesses in Canada’s trade agenda, agricultural, communications, procurement and transport protectionism,  that has left officials to over-negotiate bilateral trade deals of questionable significance at least when compared to the stalled Doha Round, the talks with the European Union and the newly emerging Pacific Trade Talks.   Whatever vision the Prime Minister has for the next four years remains in his head and not expressed by any endorsement of potentially transformational cabinet ministers.

The reason for such an approach lies with the priority given to returning the government to a balanced budget.  For Stephen Harper a balanced budget must be achieved by the time of the next election or he will have failed his own criteria.  If he balances the budget, he can rightly claim to have brought Canada out of the worst recession of recent memory and left the country stronger.  If he fails to balance the budget, Canadians will have a right to ask, “Just what have you achieved over the last almost ten years?” What is at stake is not just the Conservatives’ fate in the next election but also Stephen Harper’s legacy.

It is no coincidence then that the Prime Minister has turned to two Harris Ontario stalwarts, the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, and the Treasury Board Minister, Tony Clement.  They may not be terribly exciting political leaders but they have proven over their respective careers to deliver what their leader wants and to make sure he gets the credit.  Money is policy and right now Flaherty and Clement are the two most significant policy leaders in Ottawa other than of course of Stephen Harper.

What may surprise some in the years ahead is that Harper will leave much of the financial detail to Flaherty and Clement while he himself concentrates more on international affairs using Baird as his interlocutor.  Harper knows that whatever international capital Canada has gained in Afghanistan, Libya and the G-8 Maternal Health Initiative will simply dissipate without forceful interventions as once more the United States of America under the activist leadership of President Barrack Obama looks to likely once more re-order fundamental global relationships in the Middle East, Asia and Europe – even as the US economy struggles to improve.

Harper needs a balanced budget and a clear presence of Canada on the world stage in order to ensure the Conservatives win a majority in the next election based on a fundamental shift in voter alignment.  He needs both to prove his leadership mattered to the future of Canada.  Ultimately he knows history remembers Prime Ministers and only rarely Cabinet ministers.  And history sometimes is only one news cycle.