Give me direct democracy or give me window-dressing

The NL Open Government Initiative does not mean what it says

Reading the press release accompanying the recent announcement of the NL Provincial Government’s “Open Government Initiative,” one tends to get the impression that this is a radical shift in policy toward direct decision-making by the people.

The release uses phrases like “shape policy and decision-making” and “meaningful opportunities for the public to have input,” while using the words ‘engage’ and ‘engagement’ repeatedly. Here is a statement from Premier Marshall in the press release to give some sense of the flavor:

Today’s launch of the Open Government Initiative is an important signal to the residents of the province that we are listening. We value the input of the public and are committed to your involvement, so that you have a say in the decisions of the Provincial Government. We now ask Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to give us the benefit of their ideas, insights and expertise, which we will use to develop our first Open Government Action Plan.

However, this initiative, spearheaded by the Office of Public Engagement, should not suggest that seeking input from the public and holding public consultations is an actionable goal because this is a requirement of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) the provincial government is taking part in. The OGP originated in the United Nations in 2011 and is specifically about providing information to the public in open formats. It is mostly an “open data” initiative that asks governments to provide information as machine-readable data (i.e. data can be used by information crunching software like NVivo).

OGP requires that participating governments consult with civil society in the creation of an action plan that will lead to greater openness, transparency, and accountability. OPG is not without its critics; Yu and Robinson, in their article “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’” published in the UCLA Law Review, note that this apparent push for openness is not necessarily as groundbreaking as it may seem, since “a government can provide open data on politically neutral topics even as it remains deeply opaque and unaccountable.”

Looking through some of the progress reports submitted on participating governments, it quickly becomes apparent that direct public involvement in decision-making is not an integral part of OGP. Actionable goals around open data are things that governments can do, and certainly make sense to do, but the aspects of OGP to do with citizen participation are always fuzzy (to use a polite term) other than to say that public consultations of some kind or other are held. The progress report for the Government of Canada, for example, says nothing about citizens being directly involved in decision-making, but does talk about the public consultation process. A good indication of how well the Government of Canada did in this regard is that in a country of 35 million people there was only one public comment submitted on the report.

The take-away here is that OGP is not actually about public involvement in decision-making, other than that the government is required to consult with the public in developing an action plan. All the talk from the provincial government about engagement and public input is window-dressing. Yes, the government should take up the open information and open data aspects of OGP, but it should not pretend that this is some kind of radical initiative for direct decision-making by citizens. It is not and it cannot be because our government, in its current form, is incapable of allowing everyday people to make decisions about things affecting their lives.

If you doubt what I say, go to one of the public consultations or submit a comment on the government’s flashy new Open Government website and see what materializes of it. There is, of course, no mechanism in place to show how public input corresponds to decision-making outcomes, and in this way the promise of public decision-making cannot authentically be put into practice. Nonetheless, the silver lining is that the provincial government recognizes the growing desire of everyday people to be directly involved in decision-making, evident in all the jargon about engagement and citizen participation in recent years. And indeed there is a term for public input and public decision-making explicitly conditioning policy outcomes: direct democracy.

What the provincial government wants in the way it discusses engagement and citizen participation are the benefits of direct democracy (social stability, moral and ethical standing, popular legitimacy, etc.) without actually letting people decide anything other than which candidate they like ever four years. It may seem unfair of me to shoot this initiative down before it’s even started, but it is not going to work and is not going to engage the public because what’s most transparent is the window-dressing. Direct democracy is a viable solution to many of the problems we face, but it must be done authentically or it’s not being done at all.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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