Full disclosure – the Conservative government has serious problems with the Parliamentary Budgetary Officer, Kevin Page, and so do I. My reasons are more straightforward than those of the government, and it’s all about timing – the idea for this column was mine (sort of), but not before he made it his own. So credit where credit is due and all that nonsense.
The upside, however, is that Page’s involvement adds some colour to a column on digital governance, as his office was recently snowed under by nearly 5,000 pages of documents sent over by Transportation and Infrastructure Minister John Baird (appropriately enough, just before Halloween). So much for the virtual office….
The serious subject matter here: Canada’s stimulus spending, transparency and accountability, and the embarrassing canyon that separates the innovative effort on the part of the Obama administration to ensure disclosure and oversight, versus the comedy show that has been playing itself out in this country. If not for a global pandemic, organized crime controlling Montreal, and the Olympic torch relay, people might actually be paying attention.
When President Obama signed into law the historically huge stimulus spending bill, he recognized the glaring danger of cronyism and corruption sapping away his credibility for more open and transparent government (similar to Prime Minister’s Harper pledges upon introducing the Federal Accountability Act, thereby creating Mr. Page’s position). Spend just under eight hundred billion dollars, and some funny things are bound to happen.
So the Obama team turned to the internet – creating recovery.gov, a highly sophisticated, interactive website tracking stimulus spending across the country. Detailed project updates are available along with quarterly reports of overall spending progress, and it is notable that the data presented here has spawned numerous other websites from groups friendly and hostile to the federal government’s plans.
To ensure the site did not simply function as a political communications tool (more on Canada’s approach in a moment), recovery.gov is overseen by an independent, Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Mandated by the stimulus bill, it has two goals: to provide transparency and to prevent and detect fraud and wasteful spending. The chairperson is a former inspector general with considerable experience pursuing government mismanagement and lobbying corruption. Another twelve inspector generals serve with him.
While the Board’s mission is to provide more direct openness and reporting to the public at large, its work also facilitates Congressional scrutiny and oversight. Accordingly, the Administration’s own efforts to be transparent provide greater oxygen for political scrutiny and accountability, ideally assisting the White House in avoiding the sort of reactionary media and special interest exposing of questionable conduct only well after the fact (when typically embarrassing details have accumulated to damaging levels).
Back in this country, openness and accountability are subsumed to communications theatrics, the public interest apparently served by a relentless flow of television and billboard ads extolling the benefits of federal infrastructure investments. Furthermore, when Mr. Page asked serious questions about spending plans and thought he might play a role in monitoring the billions of dollars of disbursements, the result was a farcical mountain of paper.
Mr. Page and others have underscored the cleavage between American and Canadian efforts in this regard. Asked to comment on such comparisons by the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge several months ago, the often defensive and always dismissive Minister Baird replied, with a straight face, that the government issued a press release – and online! – each time a project was approved.
The government will now pay a price for its shortsighted attempts to manage the message for political gain: already, a media story of alleged ties between a Quebec company and a Tory Senator, and more is surely to come. In fairness, the creation of the Federal Accountability Act means that an independent lobbying commissioner is now in place to examine such cases and report on the results.
Yet the challenge remains the governing mindset that views digital communications through a “war room” mentality, Conservative or Liberal. The Westminster model is all about secrecy and controlling information – despite any occasional rhetoric about web 2.0 to the contrary. Any serious effort toward openness is nowhere to be found and the biggest loser is the country – as the erosion of legitimacy and interest in politics continues unabated.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).