Ignorant Government in the Information Age
A bill goes before Parliament. Implementing it will cost money. How much? That’s obviously a question that has to be answered before MPs can decide whether to vote for the bill or not. To pass legislation without knowing the cost would be irresponsible.
But it’s happening. And it’s a sign of the times. While the world moves ever deeper into an Information Age, Canadian public policy is headed in the other direction. “As a nation, we have very little capacity to conduct social policy research, evaluate social programs, or monitor progress towards achieving social aims,” concluded a federal report in 1998. That statement is even more true today.
“There is genuine concern that Parliament is losing control of its fiduciary responsibilities,” Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, told a House of Commons Committee this week. Page raised his red flag for many reasons. The latest is the refusal of the Conservative government to provide MPs with the estimated costs of implementing its crime bill. The government says the estimates are “cabinet confidences.”
So cabinet gets to see them, no one else. Shut up and vote.
Having come to power promising “open and transparent” government, the Conservatives have made government more closed and opaque than ever.
Information is hoarded and locked down. Information-producers are bullied, hobbled, or fired.
The Law Commission, which studied complex legal issues: closed. The Parliamentary Budget Office, which reports on critical financial issues: under- funded and stonewalled. The long-form census, which was the source of essential data used by private and public sectors across the country: replaced with a useless survey. Statistics Canada, an internationally renowned agency: working under a cloud of uncertainty and fear.
Perhaps worst of all, civil servants are increasingly forbidden from organizing conferences or otherwise connecting with external researchers whose findings my be uncongenial to the government. Where contact is permitted, there are still restrictions. I know of one conference where a survey of the attendee’s views was quashed by frightened civil servants because it was likely to produce numbers the Conservatives don’t want to exist. Mission accomplished.
Yes, the Conservatives created the PBO. Huzzah for them. It was a campaign promise meant to underscore how “open and transparent” they would be. But since the PBO’s creation, Stephen Harper has done everything he can to hamper Kevin Page’s work. Just consider the tussle over whether there is a “structural deficit.”
A “structural deficit” is simply a deficit that won’t disappear when the economy is at full throttle. The PBO says the government’s deficit is structural. The Conservatives insist that’s not true, that the deficit will turn into surpluses when the economy revs up. So who’s right? The PBO released all the assumptions and data underlying its projections.
The government refuses to do so.
In this way, the government creates doubt where there would not otherwise be any. Is there a structural deficit? It’s reported as a he-said, she-said story. So people shrug and turn the page.
(Incidentally, the International Monetary Fund agrees with the PBO. I’d put my money on Kevin Page too.)
For Stephen Harper, facts are like concrete barriers blocking his manoeuvres. Doubt turns hard facts soft. And if facts are never produced in the first place, they can’t get in the way, can they?
But I want to emphasize that this problem is not all about the Conservatives. Again, note that the quotation above is from 1998: The Conservatives are simply making a bad situation worse.
The chair of the committee that produced the report I quoted is Ivan Fellegi, the near-legendary former Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada. Ever the non-partisan, Fellegi won’t judge the Conservatives relative to the Liberal governments that preceded them. But in general, he is pessimistic.
Research and policy analysis only deliver benefits over the long-term, Fellegi notes. Skimp on them and there’s no cost up front. For politicians who can’t see beyond the next election, the conclusion is obvious. “The easiest thing to sacrifice is analytic capacity,” Fellegi says.
Contrast that with the American government. Its Congressional Budget Office is to the Parliamentary Budget Office what a real elephant is to a toy elephant. The Government Accountability Office is another huge and respected institution, with a mandate far broader than that of our Auditor General. And there are more like them. On every conceivable issue, they are constantly churning out top-quality statistics and research, most of which is available to anyone at the click of a mouse.
Thanks to them, and a huge array of think-tanks and university affiliations, there is “a public-policy network of researchers, social scientists, and economists that is unheard of in this country,” says Fellegi.
The reason for this contrast? Competition. In the American system, the president competes with Congress. The Senate competes with the House of Representatives. Individual senators and congressmen even compete with each other, and the administration, because there is little of the party discipline that muzzles MPs here. All this competition creates insatiable demand for the raw material of public debate: policy research.
We can’t replicate that demand in the Canadian system. But we can create the arms-length, fully empowered, well-funded institutions that generate the research.
All it would take is a prime minister who thinks facts are essential.