Last week the Prime Minister announced that he would use YouTube to answer citizen submitted questions. Over the past seven days thousands of Canadians have submitted and voted on questions that they would like to Prime Minister to answer.
Is this novel or new? Not really – on a smaller scale politicians have been doing Town Hall meetings for decades and, in the US, President Obama has answered questions posed over YouTube and indeed, some YouTube questions were even inserted into the Presidential debates in the 2008 presidential election.
Is it, however, good? Absolutely. Giving Canadians the opportunity to submit questions to the Prime Minister – and to vote on questions that they think are important – is a fantastic way to let the government (and media) know about the priorities and concerns of citizens. Some will laugh at the fact that the top questions revolve around the decriminalization of cannabis. But then, there is a significant and vocal minority who both feel strongly about this subject and unrepresented by the political parties and the media. I think it is fantastic that they get to ask the Prime Minister their question.
Then there are those who wonder if this YouTube press conference is another death knell for traditional media. Some journalists have scoffed at the idea of citizens asking questions. Citizens don’t know the issues well enough or aren’t articulate enough to ask questions. Maybe, but journalists should remember that they are talking about their audience. Can one really write for an audience you hold in contempt? Maybe it would be worth listening to them… Underling it all is a concern that the press will be cut out of the picture. If the Prime Minister can connect directly with citizens… what role is left for the press? The fact is there will always be a role of intelligent, informed people to comment on what is going on in Ottawa. Indeed, smart traditional media outlets should welcome this developing. By drawing people into the political process YouTube is growing the audience of people who care about politics and who will want to read about it.
But will the Q&A help the Prime Minister attract voters and even engage citizens? That is a completely different question. Where the journalists have a point is that they – sometimes deservedly, sometimes not – have brought credibility to the process of holding the Prime Minister and government to account. Their job (performed with a mixed degree of success) is to ask hard questions. They bring credibility to the process. What I’m not sure the PMO (or politicians generally) realize is that removing journalists doesn’t make the process easier – it makes it harder. Now the credibility of the process lies completely in their hands. If the Prime Minister does not address questions that received a lot of votes – the whole experiment will be labeled a communications gimmick and could end up costing him. Moreover, if he only answers softball questions or doesn’t actually engage the tough components of some of the questions posed, he will lose credibility. No longer can the PMO blame the media for spinning him badly, Canadians will now see if, left completely to his own devices, will the Prime Minister actually talk about issues or just issue talking points, reach out to Canadians or firm up his base.
And actually engaging votes will require a big shift for the PMO (or most politicians). As most online experts will tell you, and as Ivor Tossell aptly discussed yesterday, online interactions work best when you actually interact with the audience. Issuing press releases and spouting sound bites over a blog, or a YouTube video, won’t cause the online world to take interest, in fact, it will positively turn them against you. But then, maybe this is a constituency most politicians simply don’t care about and so simply being online will be sufficient, as it gives the Prime Minister and other politicians the appearance of being online to the offline world…
Some questions I hope the PM answers:
“A majority of Canadians when polled say they believe marijuana should be legal for adults and taxes like alcohol. Why don’t you end the war on drugs and focus on violent criminals.” (Cause it is the most voted for)
“Sir, the US Government much larger yet they disclose much more information about contracts, grants and lobbyists. When will the Government of Canada disclosure more information to the taxpayers of Canada” (cause I care about open government)
Since research has shown that mandatory minimum sentencing does not deter future crime, what makes you believe this is still an effective way of prosecuting criminals? (cause evidence based public policy matters)
Why is the government not more open about the Afghan detainee issue? Every time a legitimate question is asked, the response is that we should “support our troops” and look the other way (because every Canadian wants this questions answered)
Mid-last year, the CBC stated that the GST cuts introduced by your government have hiked the deficit by as much as $10 BILLION. Since most everyday purchases only end up saving Canadians pennies, why not raise the GST back to previous levels? (a great accountability question)
“Canadians seemed happy about your decision to match donations to Haiti after the devastating Earthquake; however, it has recently been discovered that the money has not gone out. Why was there a delay and when can we expect to see the money spent?” (great accountability question)
“As a gay Canadian, why should I support your government?” (was told about this question but couldn’t find it – google, filter failure! – I think this is precisely the type of question the media will never ask…)