Open government only solution to disengagement
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Governments face a crisis of trust. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is right that the only solution is greater openness.
Oct 29 2013. By: Don Lenihan
In a recent open letter to Ontarians, Premier Kathleen Wynne wrote that “Open Dialogue” will make her government more transparent. I’d go even further: Open Dialogue is the only real solution to growing public cynicism and disengagement around the world. Let me explain why.
Not so long ago, policy-makers could draw fairly clear boundaries around issues. For example, public health typically involved questions such as nutrition, sanitation and physical exercise. Economic stability and job security focused on supporting regional industries and labour markets.
In that simpler world, people were more confident their governments could debate and find solutions to the issues of the day — say, by building sewers and recreation programs; or by regulating industry and training people for new jobs.
Over the last few decades, this has changed. Globalization, telecommunications and the internet have shrunk the world and transformed our society. Today, far from being focused and discrete, issues are increasingly diffuse and interconnected, so that a change in one sector or region affects the others, much like an ecosystem.
Policy-making has been deeply affected by this new reality. Thus public health issues now merge with traditionally unrelated fields, such as education, the environment, culture and even gender studies. In the global economy, financial instability in Greece or Portugal can halt recovery in North America.
Indeed, over the last few decades, virtually every major policy field has been redefined around new “holistic” principles based on interconnectedness. Thus “sustainable development” links the environment to the economy; and “lifelong learning” links education with community development. What does this mean for politicians?
This new interconnected world comes with a high political cost. It makes big decisions, such as whether to build a new transit system in Toronto or an oil pipeline through British Columbia, immeasurably more complex — and therefore politically risky. It is often impossible to know in advance which groups and communities will be affected or how.
By the same token, the more complex the issue, the more difficult it is for a government to explain when something goes wrong. In a holistic world, making big decisions is fraught with political peril.
Policy-makers now struggle with this kind of uncertainty every day. For a time, it seemed they had found a way to cope. As the Star’s Susan Delacourtconvincingly shows, in the 1990s and 2000s, public opinion research emerged as a powerful tool to help political leaders identify where concerns over a decision might surface; and then to frame their response in ways that would reassure the public. Strategists began using polls and focus groups energetically to guide, package and “sell” government decisions.
Unfortunately, this “communications and marketing approach” to decision-making has had an unintended result: it’s been profoundly centralizing. To be effective, the message a government wishes to deliver must be clear, simple and consistent. But the only way to ensure this is to script what people say. And such control can only be exercised from the centre.
But the further politics moves toward marketing, the less room there is for public debate. In some governments, even Cabinet members are now told what to say.
In a democracy, this kind of control is unacceptable. A government that communicates through talking points quickly degenerates into parody. Highly centralized, poll-driven governance is a democratic dead end. Rather than clarifying and legitimating difficult decisions, it pushes them ever further behind closed doors and shrouds them in secrecy. Eventually, people stop believing government has real answers to the hard questions — or that it is listening to them — and they tune out.
This is the tipping point governments are fast approaching. There is only one way to reverse it: rebuild legitimacy and trust. And on this, Premier Wynne’s open letter is quite right: it starts with openness.
Since I’ve been named chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team, several people have asked me why they should take Premier Wynne seriously on openness, given the gas plant scandal.
As chair it is not my role to attack or defend the government on that issue. Frankly, I don’t much care why the government has come around to the idea that Open Dialogue is necessary. Sometimes our best lessons come from our biggest mistakes. I’m far more interested in how far it is prepared to go to change how government works.
The real challenge our team will face over the next several months as we carry out our mandate is to bring the difficult decisions out from behind closed doors and let the public play a more engaged and meaningful role in making them. Building a transparent and inclusive policy process will be a difficult and controversial task. I am very keen to hear what Ontarians will have to say on the matter.
Don Lenihan is chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. His latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement, considers how and why governments need to rethink the public policy process.
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