Open Government Advocacy: The Danger of Letting Narrative Trump Fact

So I loath making this the first post of the new year, but here we go.

Today published a story “Tony Clement vows innovative new open government, but critics point to poor record.” In it, Jason Fekete the journalist responsible for the story, quotes a Democracy Watch spokesperson who sadly gets the facts completely wrong despite the fact that I warned Democracy Watch about their error a month ago after their press release caused similar errors to appear in a CBC story. I’ll outline why this is problem later in the post. Bur first the error.

In the article Fekete reports

Democracy Watch said it will appeal to the international open government group to reject Canada’s entry because the federal government failed to keep one of its required commitments to consult Canadians. Ottawa announced its online consultation one day after the watchdog complained about it.

This is, in fact, not true. To date, the government has not failed to meet its commitment. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (to which Democracy Watch responded as is aware) Democracy Watch accuses the government of failing because it believed consultations needed to be conducted before a November OGP meeting in Brazil. Unfortunately, the meeting in which Governments will be sharing their plans (and thus need to complete their consultations) will be taking place in Brazil in April. The OPG clearly states this on their website (under section 5). There was a meeting in November, so the confusion was understandable.

Of course, just to be safe, I did what the CBC and Postmedia should have done. I emailed the OGP secretariat to check. Within minutes they confirmed to me that the April meeting is the deadline for consultations and developing plans. What is more interesting to me is the no one from Democracy Watch, the CBC or Post Media bothered to simply email or call the OGP secretariat and confirm these facts. For the CBC and Postmedia this is a matter of laziness. For Democracy Watch, I’m not sure what is driving this willed blindness. Ultimately, I suspect that once they went public with their narrative, backing down would be seen as weakness and then government secrecy would win!

This is dangerous for two reasons.

The first is, it isn’t true. Government secrecy doesn’t win if Democracy Watch got its facts mixed up. I agree that this government has a lot to answer for around its willingness to disclose government documents. Be it documents around the procurement of the F-35 or the treatment of Afghan prisoners there are many cases where the lack of transparency has been blatant and, I believe, counter to the principles of democracy and open government. Conceding that the Government is still on track for its Open Government Partnership objectives does not diminish that fact. The only thing that misrepresenting the facts does is cause conservative leaning voters who believe in government transparency (an important constituency) to tune out of the debate and believe that Democracy Watch is simply out to score points against the government, not fulfill its mission.

The bigger reason I think it is dangerous is that it undermines the very thing that makes the Open Government Partnership an effective tool of open government advocates. I want to be clear. The Open Government Partnership is, in part, designed to empower advocates and help them compel their government’s to be more open. Used correctly it could be powerful. The fact that Canadian government signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a result, in part, of the fact that other OGP countries were signing on. We were able to use peer pressure to create an upward spiral. We can also use the timelines of the OGP to ensure the government carries out the pledges that it has made. And of course, there is an Open Government consultation that is currently taking place (please participate) that the government will have to share the results of with its partners – potentially giving us a way to verify that our input is being taken seriously. Indeed, participating OPG countries may even try to out do one another to demonstrate how seriously they are taking this input.

But when this tool is misused it gives the government license to ignore and write off critics. As someone who wants to use the OGP commitments as a carrot and stick to hold our government to account, stories like those I linked to above hurt our capacity to be effective.

This government does not have a great record of transparency. At the same time, there is a legitimate effort to create open government goals as part of the OGP, let’s let the process run its course (and criticize when they actually violate the process) and use the tools that are at our disposal constructively to maximize impact, rather than try to snare a quick headline that in the long term, could damage the open government movements credibility.

I certainly wouldn’t encourage Democracy Watch to petition the OGP to ask Canada to leave the partnership. I suspect the secretariat would be confused by the request. The deadline has not passed, indeed, most OGP countries are in the middle of their consultations right now.

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