There’s times when I can’t help but wonder whether our provincial government has, unbeknownst to all (and beyond scrutiny thanks to the strictures of Bill 29), secretly created a Department of Really Bad Ideas, ensconced somewhere in the Cabinet Secretariat, perhaps.

After all, this is a government that’s been producing really bad ideas over the past year as though they’re going out of style (which any glance at federal or American politics will tell you is definitively not the case: bad ideas dominate the catwalk like Lady Gaga in ponytails).

And this is a government that I tried really, really hard to like. I’ve been castigated by some of the province’s finest bloggers for my shameless praise of Danny Williams (not his recent career spin into suing environmental activists, which I consider petty, shameful behaviour that risks undermining public dialogue and the democratic process: but as premier he was awesome!). I wept when he stepped down and cheered aloud when Kathy Dunderdale was announced as his successor (I greatly admired her pre-premier record).

So what went wrong? Where did it all fall apart? Well, let us not bash unabashedly, nor castigate crassly. This critique contains a proposition with a purpose. Point is: this government has been on a downward spiral for some time.

And then they pull something like this.

The Office of Public Engagement

Some day, far in the future, we will perhaps know the name of the person who first proposed this mutant creation (and Bill Rowe will write a delightful little book about them). Hopefully, by that day this department will be long gone, returned to the brackish bad-idea bilgewater whence it came.

Truth be told, we haven’t heard a lot of details about what the purpose of this Office is, or what it will do, beyond government’s vague press release that it “will ensure every department can launch effective, targeted and interactive public consultations, including social media and rich information resources…The office will build on the existing strengths of current functions and coordinate the efforts of departments to increase access to information resources.” (this ‘description’ is followed by a hilarious paragraph reassuring the reader that key Executive Council offices will continue to look after their own affairs)

The obscurantism of the announcement alone is indicative of a lot about this government: that flashy words and vague concepts predominate over considered wisdom or detailed planning. Creation of a new Office should not be undertaken lightly: it should be accompanied by detailed data, research and explanation outlining its purpose, the need for it, its budget and organization, how it will operate, and most importantly what it will do which is not being done already, and why this gap ought to be filled in this way.

Because you see, the most ridiculous aspect of government creating an office of public engagement is that they already have one.

It’s called: government!

Engaging should not be this hard

The very raison d’etre of a government is to engage the public. Government is the conduit – the mediating channel – between the state as a singular entity, and the various people and institutions which comprise it (that means us). This is, remember, a democracy. Our elected government has a singular role: to engage with the public on an ongoing basis and carry out the actions we require of it in order to meet our needs. Its purpose is to enact the directives of the public, in consultation with and in response to the needs of that public. That’s what government is all about.

The fact is, government – each and every one of its departments – should already be engaging with the public. That is the only way they can fulfill their mandate. And this needs to be done by each and every department, in the unique ways that best serve the needs of that department and the role it plays. And no, it should not be done by self-proclaimed ‘specialists’. It should be done by real, elected, accountable people.

If the Department of Fisheries doesn’t engage with the fishers, the fishery unions, the fishing companies, and the communities that rely on the fisheries, how is it supposed to create and implement good fishery policy? And if it isn’t the Fisheries Minister and senior staff in that department doing the engaging, how are they supposed to know how to do anything remotely helpful for the fisheries?

If the Department of Education doesn’t engage with educators, school boards, students, and parents (in short, EVERYONE), how is it supposed to run an education system in this province?

If the Labrador Affairs Office doesn’t engage with the people of Labrador, what precisely is it doing? Moose-hunting? Thumb-twiddling? Hosting complimentary tours of Muskrat Falls for journalists?

Creating an Office of Public Engagement is sort of like IKEA creating a Furniture and Household Goods Division. It’s like the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation announcing they plan to open a new series of branches to deal with alcohol sales. It’s like phoning Metrobus and getting a recording that says “Welcome to Metrobus. If you have a question pertaining to bus services, press 1. If not, hang up.”

In short, it’s foolish.

Because it’s what they’re already supposed to be doing.

In fact, it would strike me as less bizarre if Dunderdale had announced the provincial government planned to open a new Office of Pizza Sales. Because you see, pizza sales is something the provincial government does not currently do (that we know of – post-Bill 29 you never know, I suppose). So it would make sense for them to create a new office to do it with.

But public engagement is what government is supposed to be all about.

The dark side

Of course, the creation of this ‘Office’ has a more insidious side as well. It’s part of an ongoing process of government withdrawing obsessively into itself, away from its responsibilities and accountability. Others far more capable than I have written extensively about this trend. For any normal, responsible, accountable democratic government, public engagement should not be a problem. It should be happening in a hundred – a thousand – different, effortless ways everyday.

Of course, it’s not happening, and that’s a problem. When reporters call government offices these days to ask questions and get information, they’re directed to communications/PR agents who act as filters between the ministers and senior staff, and the general public. When the public tries to file access to information requests, they run up against censorship mechanisms like Bill 29. In short, the government has progressively reduced its ability and level of public engagement. And yes, that’s a problem. This Office will, in all likelihood, not increase public engagement, but rather centralize it with the effect of controlling and containing it.

I have very little doubt that this idea originated in the mind of some bureaucrat who graduated from a public relations, public policy or communications degree. It reeks of buzzwordism and trend-speak. Mind you, I have nothing against communications and PR personnel. Many of my friends are very lovely people working hard at such jobs. And there’s a place for that. But it’s a very specific place. PR/Communications ‘specialists’ should be designing pretty posters, making easy-to-use webpages, ensuring that telephone hotlines are adequately staffed and that public hearings are accessible and have sign language translation.

But they should have nothing whatsoever to do with the process of governing. When PR/communications staff start using words like “information dissemination plan”, “strategic initiatives”, “risk management” or, yes, “public engagement”, elected ministers ought to take off their jackets, flap their arms wildly and shoo those glorified pamphlet-makers back to their desks.

Anyway, back to engagement

My favourite example of these problematic communications firewalls occurred with a government agency I recently called, looking for an interview. I was interested in getting a comment about a submission that agency had made to a recent provincial legislative review process. The person I spoke with asked me to email them my specific questions and said they’d find somebody to reply (Democracy Fail #1 – you don’t do that. To ensure democratic accountability journalists need to be able to speak directly to ministers and senior bureaucrats with no filter). But this wasn’t a particularly contentious issue; the future of our democracy didn’t hinge on it, so I rolled my eyes and sent along the email. When I received no reply, I followed it up with phone calls and spoke to at least two additional bureaucrats who assured me they’d find somebody to get back to me soon. Then finally, a couple days later, I received the following reply from yet another staffer:

“Unfortunately at this time, we do not have anyone available to respond and will be declining your request for an interview.”

WTF? Nobody available? This agency produced a public submission and yet had nobody who could speak to it? What were all those staffpeople doing? A half dozen people to tell me there was no one available to answer my question? Any one of them would have been fine! Or any one of their bosses!

The fact is, it was a patent lie that there was no one available to respond. In fact no less than four people did respond – just not to my question. What was going on was that they were declining my request for a comment (in the most convoluted, roundabout way possible). I’m still not clear whether the request was declined by the senior bureaucrats, or whether those senior bureaucrats even received the request through the filter of PR staff. But either way, it was a denial. Let’s not mince words.

And that’s their right. But it’s also our right – as the public – to hold our government to account when they clam up. Except in very rare instances – like when the lives of the public depend on it, and even then it’s debateable – our government has no right to no comment. That’s like investing your money, and then when you call the banker to find out the status of your investment, the banker telling you “Sorry, I’m not telling.” It’s your money.

And in the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, this is our province.

It is not the private domain of 37 Progressive Conservative MHA’s.

Time for democratic renewal

The direction of public dialogue – public engagement, which is another way of saying democratic accountability – in this province is a matter of severe concern. Given the increasingly anti-democratic turn events have taken in recent months, it’s clear that we need a reaffirmation of basic principles of democratic accountability to get things back on track. A code of conduct for government, if you will. And it should encompass some very basic principles:

1) Journalists must always be able to access members of government within a reasonable timeframe, and with no intervening filter.

2) Every department of government ought to be engaging with the public on a regular, ongoing basis. The method, frequency and depth of engagement ought to be driven by the public, not by government.

3) Government is a public body charged with a public trust. Nothing spoken, written, published, researched or proposed in the course of carrying out that public duty should ever be withheld or kept secret from the public which government serves – except for extremely rare cases of delayed public dissemination where immediate distribution could endanger lives.

4) Elected members of government must accept responsibility for the acts of their government. Ministers must accept responsibility for the acts of their departments. Accountability should not be shirked. If staff make mistakes or errors of judgement, ministers ought to be held responsible. They were responsible for supervising the staff and for knowing what went on. Even if they’re not guilty of a mistake or error in judgement themselves, they must still take responsibility for such acts that occur on their watch. Don’t be a shirker, b’ys. The buck stops with you: have the decency and honour to accept the responsibility.

There’s the beginning of a programme to revitalize our province’s democracy. Maybe our provincial parties can build on that to demonstrate their commitment to renewing democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador for the next election.

And at the very least, let’s see the opposition parties pre-emptively commit themselves to ditching this ridiculous Office of Public Engagement.

Unless, you know, they’d like to use it to sell pizzas or something.