Yearly Archives: 2009

A Sad Day for Canadian Democracy

I, like many other people, was unsurprised but depressed to hear about the prorogation of Parliament yesterday. Lots has been written on it, much of it very intelligent, some of it not.

Andrew Coyne has a fantastic piece about how, as Radiohead would sing, you do it to yourself and that Parliament has consistently allowed itself to become irrelevant through a thousand small cuts. He is also correct in asserting that only its members can make it relevant again.

Kady O’Malley probably has the best insight in this interview. Why prorogue yesterday? Why not wait until when the House comes back in January in case some emergency arose that required Parliament’s attention. The unusual timing suggests the government wants to avoid letting committees or Parliamentarians do their work (mostly likely on the Afghan detainee problem).

On the less inspired side is conservative blogger Stephen Taylor. Stephen has good post and does as good a job as anyone can expect defending the indefensible. But ultimately, nothing he says counters O’Malley’s point. Moreover, his attempt to suggest that proroguing is constitutionally required (not even the PMO is making this claim) and that it is only those in Opposition who are acting politically is demolished by Ibbitson’s deadly and even handed column on the subject (very much worth reading).

Let there be no mistake, this is a political move.

Just as it was back in 2003 when (as Ibbitson rightly points out) Chretien prorogued Parliament in 2003 to avoid critics of the sponsorship program. Note this was also the time when Chretien’s popularity began to slide… So do people care about the Afghan detainee problem? No (just like they didn’t initially care about the sponsorship scandal). They DO care when their government ceases to be accountable, when it runs and hides from its mistakes. Doing so irrevocably hurt Chretien. It may end up doing the same to this government.

Either way, as pretty much every columnist seems to be saying, today our democracy is a little weaker, and Parliament a little less relevant.

The Supreme Court of Canada: There are no journalists, only citizens

I’ll confess some confusion around the slant taken by several newspapers and media outfits regarding yesterday’s supreme court decision on defense of libel claims.

For those new to this story, yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a libel claim can be defeated even when the facts or allegations made turn out to be false (e.g. I don’t owe you money if I say something nasty and untrue about you) as long as the story was in the public interest and I met a certain standard around trying to ascertain the truth. In short, my intentions, not my output, is what matters most. This new line of defense has a fancy new name to go with it… the defence of responsible communication.

Boring, and esoteric? Hardly.

Notice how it isn’t called “the defence of responsible journalism?” (although, ahem, someone should let CTV know). This story matters as it demonstrates that the law is finally beginning to grasp what the internet means for our democracy and society.

Sadly, the Globe, CBC, National Post and CTV (indeed everyone with the exception of Colby Cosh at Macleans) all framed the decision as being about journalism and journalists.

It isn’t.

This is about all us – and our rights and responsible in a democracy in the internet age. Indeed, as if to hammer home this point the justices went out of their way to in their decision to essentially say: there is no such thing as “a journalist” in the legal sense.

A second preliminary question is what the new defence should be called.  In arguments before us, the defence was referred to as the responsible journalism test.  This has the value of capturing the essence of the defence in succinct style.  However, the traditional media are rapidly being complemented by new ways of communicating on matters of public interest, many of them online, which do not involve journalists.  These new disseminators of news and information should, absent good reasons for exclusion, be subject to the same laws as established media outlets.  I agree with Lord Hoffmann that the new defence is “available to anyone who publishes material of public interest in any medium” [paragraph 96]

and early they went ever further:

The press and others engaged in public communication on matters of public interest, like bloggers, must act carefully, having regard to the injury to reputation that a false statement can cause. [paragraph 62]

If you are going to say “blogger” you might as well say “citizen.”  All the more so when “publishing material of public interest in any medium” includes blogs, twitter, an SMS text message, a youtube video… mediums through which anyone can publish and broadcast.

Rather than being about journalism this case was about freedom of expression and about laying a legal framework for a post-journalism world. Traditional journalists benefit as well (which is nice – and there will still be demand for their services) but the decision is so much broader and far reaching than them. At its core, this is about what one citizen can say about another citizen, be that in the Globe, on CBC, on my blog, or anywhere. And rather than celebrate or connote any unique status upon journalist it does the opposite. The ruling acknowledges that we are all now journalists and that we need a legal regime that recognizes this reality.

I suspect some journalists will likely protest this post. But the ruling reflects reality. The notion of journalists as a professional class was and has always been problematic. There are no standards to guide the profession and no professional college to supervise members (as there is with the legal or medical profession). Some institutions take on the role of standard setting themselves (read journalism schools and media outlets) but they have no enforcement capacity and ultimately this is not a self-regulated profession. Rather, it has always been regulated by the courts. Technology has just made that more evident, and now the courts have too. Today, when speaking of others we are all a little better protected, and also have the burden of behaving a little more responsibly.

BC Government's blog on renewing the Water Act

On Friday the Government of British Columbia announced that it was beginning the process to renew the province’s water act. This is, in of itself, important and good.

More interesting however, is that the government has chosen to launch a blog to discuss ideas, prospective changes and generally engage the public on water issues.

It is, of course, early days. I’m not one to jump up and proclaim instant success nor pick apart the effort and find its faults after a single post. What I will say is that this type of experimentation in public engagement and policy development is long overdue. It is exciting to see a major government in Canada tentatively begin to explore how online technology and social media might enhance policy development as more (hopefully) than just a communication exercise. Even if it does not radically alter the process – or even if it does not go well – at least this government is experimenting and beginning learn what will work and what won’t. I hope and suspect other jurisdictions will be watching closely.

If you are such a government-type and are wondering what it is about the site that gives me hope… let me briefly list three things:

  1. Site design: Unlike most government websites which OVERWHELM you with information, menus and links, this one is (relatively) simple.
  2. Social media: A sidebar with recent comments! A tag cloud! RSS feed! Things that most blogs and website have had for years and yet… seem to elude government websites.
  3. An effective platform (bonus points for being open source): This may be the first time I’ve seen an official government website in Canada use wordpress (which, by the by, is free to download). When running a blog wordpress is certainly my choice (quite literally) and has been a godsend. The choice of wordpress also explains a lot of why point #2 is possible.

So… promising start. Now, what would I like to see happen around the government’s blog?

Well, if you want to engage the public why not give them data that you are using internally? It would be great to get recent and historic flow rate data from major rivers in BC. And what about water consumption rates by industry/sector but also perhaps by region and by city and dare we ask… by neighborhood? It would also be interesting to share the assumptions about future growth so that professors, thinktanks and those who care deeply about water issues could challenge and test them. Of course the government could share all this data on its upcoming Apps For Climate Change data portal (more on that soon). If we were really lucky, some web superstar like this guy, would create some cool visualization to help the public understand what is happening to water around the province and what the future holds.

In short, having a blog is a fantastic first start, but lets use it to share information so that citizens can do their own analysis using their own assumptions with the same data sets the government is using. That would certainly elevate the quality of the discussion on the site.

All in all, the potential for a site like this is significant. I hope the water geeks show up in force and are able to engage in a helpful manner.

Detailing the Vortex – Canada & Afghan Prisoners

Campbell Clark has a piece in the Globe today outlining in journalistic fashion how the machinery of the public service was disorganized and at odds with itself and thus, as a result, the truth and accountability become the first victim. I thought it was a good follow up for those who found my piece from yesterday on how Canada has entered a Bush-like vortex to be interesting.

Someone at the Globe thinks that this story has legs – which is good, since it is of paramount importance to Canadians. If a ministry as important as Foreign Affairs handling an issue as important as the war in Afghanistan can’t tell us where the buck stops then perhaps the model we presently have is broken.

I hope that this situation becomes a case study in Public Policy schools across the country. It is a classic example of the types of conflicts public servants regularly face: what to do when what a political master (or more senior public servant) wants to hear conflicts with all evidence and reality? And don’t think that Colvin was an isolated issue. Remember there were 21 other public servants in addition to Colvin who were subpoenaed by the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC) but did not testify. (As an aside: The MPCC – the committee that originally subpoenaed Richard Colvin and which the government tried to block from doing so – ultimately prompting MPs of the The House of Commons’ Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan to subpoena Colvin). Maybe they have nothing of interest to share. But suspect this is not the case – as if it were, why not just testify? Instead, I suspect they have stories that are similar to Colvin’s (or support his) but they fear for their careers too greatly. But for them all that testifying promises is the possibility of ending their careers and the risks of being forever marginalized by senior public servants who don’t want trouble with their political masters…

On that note, I’ll end by reposting an anonymous comment from yesterday’s Globe website that appeared under my article. Suspect there is another story here.

While it is to a far smaller degree on the marality scale, I can assure you all that this is a matter of routine in government/civil servant sectors. I work at CMHC and have been present at a meeting where we were directed as to the language we were to use in upcoming publications. The change was in direct conflict with our mandate to provide unbiased information to the public. When this concern was brought up and a request for written directions made, we were all told very directly that there would never be a written record of the meeting, or the directions.

As this policy remains in place, and we remain in violation of our own priniciples, the higher ups are having to scramble to cover themselves as dissatisfaction grows. The president recently had the director of our function `fall on his sword`over suggestions that it was her that had directed this change in policy.

We all await the next directive that allegedly doesn’t come from her via the PMO.

Has Canada entered a Bush-Like Vortex?

No new piece on eaves.ca today as I wrote a special for the Globe and Mail.

The piece is entitled Has Canada entered a ‘Bush-like vortex’? and explores how the Colvin testimony suggests the public service has become compromised in a critical way. Specifically, it suggests that increasingly, public servants are being forced to shape facts and the truth to fit a narrative already constructed by our government. It’s a dangerous path down which president Bush took the American public administration with disastrous results. Here, with out traditions of a greater separation between the political and the bureaucratic, the outcome could be even worse.

Anyway, you read it here on the Globe site. I’ll cross post it tomorrow.

My Unfinished Business Talk in Toronto

ocad logoI’m really pleased to share that I’ll be giving a talk at the Ontario College of Art & Design this January 14th, 2010. The talk is one I’ve been giving for government officials a fair bit of late – it is on how technology, open methodologies and social change are creating powerful pressures for reform within our government bureaucracies. The ideas in it also form the basis of a chapter I’ve written for the upcoming O’Reilly Media book on Open Government due out in January (in the US, assuming here in Canada too – more on this in a later post).

I completely thrilled to be giving a talk at OCAD and especially want to thank Michael Anton Dila for making this all happen. It was his idea, and he pushed me to make it happen. It is especially of Michael and OCAD since they have kept the talk free and open to the public.

The talk details are below and you can register here. More exciting has been the interest in the talk – I saw that 100 tickets disappeared in the first 4 hours yesterday – people care about government and policy!

We have much unfinished business with our government – look forward to digging into it.

ABOUT UNFINISHED BUSINESS

The Unfinished Lecture is a monthly event hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD and sponsored by Torch Partnership. Part of the Unfinished Business initiative, the lectures are intended to generate an open conversation about strategic innovation in the business and design of commercial enterprises and public organizations.

AFTER THE COLLAPSE: Technology, Open and the Future of Government

What do Facebook, 911 and NASA all have in common? They all offer us a window into how our industrial era government may be redesigned for the digital age. In this lecture David Eaves will look at how open methodologies, technology and social change is reshaping the way public service and policy development will be organized and delivered in the future: more distributed, adaptive and useful to an increasingly tech savvy public. Whether a interested designer, a disruptive programmer, a restless public servant or a curious citizen David will push your thinking on what the future has in store for the one institution we all rely on: Government.
As a closing remark, I’d also like to thank Health Canada & Samara, both of who asked me to put my thoughts on this subject together into a single talk.
Hope to see you in Toronto.

Articles I'm Digesting 15/12/2009

Here are some pieces I’ve been reading of late:

You Can’t Handle the Truth by Mark Pothier in the Boston Globe

A great piece about how the classification of drugs used by most Western countries is completely divorced from how much harm those drugs cause. This isn’t surprising, but as the evidence begins to mount regarding which drugs are actually harmful (read alcohol, cocaine or heroine) versus those which are significantly less harmful (read Ecstasy or LSD) the question will increasingly emerge – will science ever inform our policies around managing these types of substances. Indeed, it is disturbing (and, er… sobering) to once again see the only  substance I use the list – alcohol – be put in such a stark and negative light.

At some point a real conversation about drugs is going to occur in the United States – I just hope it is sooner rather than later as it will have a profound effect on effectively we can deal with the tragic situation we have around substance abuse this side of the border.

Fla. Court Tells Judges and Lawyers to “Unfriend” Each Other (the AP)

Always fascinating to see how different fields respond to social networking. In this case a Florida…

…committee ruled Nov. 17 that online “friendships” could create the impression that lawyers are in a special position to influence their judge friends.

This is a great example of how social networking can cause some professions to actually become less transparent and, I would argue, harms the long term credibility of the institution. Notice here that the committee isn’t ruling that judges and lawyers can’t be friends, they are ruling that it would be harmful if the public could see that they are friends. So, in essence, if being a friend compromises the judgment of a judge, we solve that by preventing the public from seeing that the conflict could exist, rather than dealing with the conflict. Weird.

The last line is priceless:

McGrady, who is sending a copy of the ruling to the 69 judges in his circuit, said this potential conflict of interest is why he doesn’t have a Facebook page.

“If somebody’s my friend, I’ll call them on the phone,” he said, chuckling.

Errr, right. Good to keep it all in the old boys network where those on the inside know where the conflict may lie, but there is not digital trail or map that might allow the public to be better informed… Oh, and you’re the last generation that will only “pick up the phone” so this solution has, at best, a 20 year shelf life to it.

The Killer App of 1900 by Glenn Fleishman in Publicola

As some readers know, I’m a big fan of historical examples that show we are experiencing similar pressures, transformations, evolutions as experienced in the past. Part of it is the historian in me, part of it is how it helps ease the minds of those concerned or intimidated by change. There are, occasionally, genuinely new things that appear under the sun – but often those of us interested in technology and social change are too quick to scream “This is new! It changes everything!” Moreover, it does a disservice to our efforts often making people more skeptical, resistant and generally conservative towards the perceived change. Still more importantly, the past often sheds light on how power and influence created by a new technology or system may diffuse itself – who will be the winners/losers and the resisters.

In this context this article is a priceless example of the type of writing I wish I did more of.

The Score: Advice to Young Composers by Annie Gosfield in the New York Times

While written as sounds advice for composers, this is (as the friend who sent it to me said) sounds advice for policy wonks or, in my opinion, bloggers as well. (It’s actually just sounds advice for life).

A couple of credos in the piece that I hope my work, and this blog lives by:

Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously: Hope that is evident in my writing style.

Be willing to put yourself and your music on the line: Try to do that everyday here on the blog.

Don’t fear rejection: Something a blog is really good at teaching you.

A couple of credos in the piece I know I struggle with:

Don’t assume you know what’s accessible to the audience and what isn’t: Although counter to what the piece says, I occasionally run into a friend who says “I had NO idea what you were talking about in X blog post.” It is crushing to hear – but also really good. I do want to challenge readers but I also want to be accessible. Do let me know if I ever get to a place where a newbie is going to be totally lost.

Details count: So, er, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I have the occasional typo in a post, here or there… Blogging longish pieces four times a week is draining, and so I don’t proof as much as I could (plus it is hard to see one’s own errors). But I could do better.

Hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I did!