05 October 2016

The trouble with transparency #nlpoli

Last week, the provincial government's communications gang tweeted a picture, which we have reprinted on the right. It was supposed to show where Premier Dwight Ball is on his little sojourn to tomorrowland that he calls "our fiscal future."

You can see how they have crossed off a whole bunch of milestones on the way along.  Supposedly we are now at the "Focus and Refine" stage.  Next thing to come is the "Report of Choices" due at some unspecified point in the fall. Notice the diamond-shaped point there called the fall fiscal update.

The Liberals haven't told us when the update will come.  First we have to get through this thing on October 11 at which a bunch of hand-picked leaders from various "sectors" of our society will get to see what choices the government has already made for "our fiscal future."

This is "consultation" in GovSpeak. In LibSpeak, it is Transparency,  one of the Five Points of the Liberal Plan for Strategic Word Capitalization.

In his speech last week, Ball said that what people say in these consultations might have an impact on the budget.  As Ball told reporters after the fundraiser,  the event at The Rooms on October 11 will be "mainly about things we want to have further discussions on, see where people are and just test it a little bit."

"Just test it a little bit" is really what this is about. The consultation isn't consultation in the way most people would expect it and it certainly isn't anything that would change what will happen in the spring budget.  What the Liberals will start on October 11 is a round of what marketing folks would call a focus group. That's a fancy term for sounding board.

Someone already has a product or a service.  They get a bunch of folks together and test out their reaction to the product or service or, most likely, how they are planning to it.  Should they make the thing in red or blue?  Do people like this version of the sales jingle or do they like this other one better?

Consultation about policy should be and normally would be different.  It should be way back at the beginning. That's what you would expect if,  as we've been led to believe,  the government is about to unveil its long-term strategy. The Conservative energy plan, for example, took a year of discussions and lots of feedback. Most major policy discussions would be focused and would likely take a year or more.

By the looks of things, what we are about to see is basically another version of the budget consultation... err.. focus group.  People think it is substantive,  What the government is really doing is keeping folks occupied or, as Ball acknowledged, testing things out a little bit. Regular readers will know that government consultations on the budget have never been about giving people meaningful input into the government's financial plans, not in the 20 years government has been running these farces since Brian Tobin's crowd first started them. Nothing has changed this time.

The Conservatives took the farce to a new level first under Danny Williams and later with the public engagement office.  The Liberal Great Consultation is actually nothing more than a grand farce of a focus group cooked up by the same folks the Tories used.  The purpose is the same:  to distract the punters.

Meaningful Input?  Not any more.

Ball said that his roadmappy future fiscalness thing-to-be-unveiled on October 11 came from earlier consultations. Hands up anyone who was at one?  Back in the winter, maybe.  Before the budget.  But since then?

He also said it will have time lines and measurable targets in this October 11 thingy. Interesting choice of words.

Take a look at the original version of the roadmappy guide-booky thingy, at left.  Enlarge it if you need to see some of the details. It has times and things we could measure.  

Under that "Focus and Refine" one,  where the new chart says we are already, you see two differences.  First is that it was supposed to run from May until August.  Second is that the government crowd were supposed to conduct "more in-depth engagement by sector and theme to identify options and develop best possible actions."


That sounds like the meaningful input thing a real consultation is supposed to be.  Clearly, it did not happen.

After all, if  they'd been running meaningful consultations, a government committed to the Five Points would surely have been singing this from every rooftop. Point Number One of the Five Points is about transparency.  For such a government with such a Number One Point, letting the world know you are having meaningful discussions about future economic plans would be so important you would type it out  in so many capital letters so big , your eyes would hurt trying to read it.

So not only has the government abandoned its spring budget plan (hike taxes,  then do cuts), they have decided to alter their timetable and measurable commitments on how they would develop a longer term economic plan.  For good measure, not only is Dwight Ball denying they have changed anything, but they have also tried to slip in a new schedule without acknowledging the fairly obvious changes to the old one.

Transparency troubles

Transparency is much harder than it looks.

Well, it *is* much harder if you have trouble telling people what you are doing and why, which is pretty much the definition of transparency.

Not surprisingly, people are confused.  They aren't confused because of the contradictions between what the Liberals said in the spring and what they are doing now.  They are confused because folks like Dwight Ball are trying to pretend that what they are saying now is the same as what they were saying then even when it obviously isn't.

The confusion is made worse because no one from government can say what October 11 is all about, who is getting an invitation to the show, what they will be seeing or really any other details. No one can say when the October financial update is coming beyond the finance minister's promise it will happen before the end of the month.

Here's a bit of insight from 27-odd years in the public relations business.  To be transparent,  someone should be able to explain to you  - simply and plainly - what it is they are doing and why.  If someone cannot tell you what they are doing and why,  odds are they don't know.

"Transparent" may give some people are hard time but the reason why they are in trouble is obvious.