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Never waste a good crisis. Winston Churchill’s words must be ringing in the PM’s ears. First, the SNC-Lavalin controversy swallowed his star Indigenous minister, then it took his principal secretary. No one knows what’s next, but a crisis this surely is. So, can any good come of it for the Liberal government?

Maybe, and it starts with how the PM fills Gerald Butts’ very big shoes: The Liberal government needs a course correction. A quick look backward shows why.

The Harper Conservatives’ 2015 campaign was negative. They warned Canadians of a world filled with terrorists, a leaky immigration system, and looming financial chaos. The Trudeau Liberals’ campaign was positive. They responded with an expansive plan to make Canadians global leaders in the digital age, from sustainable development to feminist principles.

It’s a familiar pattern: fear vs hope. Indeed, 2015 was as close to an archetypal contest between these two themes as most Canadians are likely to see. But there was a twist. Justin Trudeau’s plan also included a litany of policies to rebuild trust through openness and transparency. Sunlight, he famously declared, is the best disinfectant.

Hope and Trust thus were the two pillars of the Liberal platform. Hope reflected the kinds of policies progressives want for the future. Open government pointed the way beyond Harper-style, top-down, secretive government.

Trudeau won a big mandate for the most activist agenda in decades. Now, as we approach the end of term, it is clear things haven’t turned out quite as planned.

There is progress on the progressive side, including the Canada Child Benefit, reform of the Canada pension plan, legalization of cannabis, and the renegotiation of NAFTA. Other files, like the environment, are more mixed, but arguably still wins. But on open government, the senate remains the bright spot. Other big commitments have all but disappeared:

  • Electoral Reform: 2015 was supposed to be the last election on FPTP. The government launched an ambitious process to engage Canadians in a cross-country dialogue to choose a new system. But when proportional representation began to emerge as the preferred option, the PM shut the process down.
  • Access to Information: The platform includes numerous proposals to strengthen transparency through better access to information. Following a review of the Act, however, the government opted for only modest changes, angering both the Information Commissioner and the Open Government community.
  • Dialogue and Engagement: A Liberal government was supposed to engage Canadians more meaningfully in the policy process. However, since the debacle with electoral reform, the government has shown no interest in experimenting with new forms of engagement, such as deliberation, outside of its legal requirements with Indigenous Peoples.
  • Cabinet Government: In the 1970s, Pierre Trudeau centralized power in the PMO at the expense of cabinet and parliament. Since then, successive governments have continued to shift power to the PMO, culminating in Stephen Harper’s fortress. Justin Trudeau promised to reverse this trend. No one think he has.

So, what happened to the Liberal plan for open government? I think we can guess.

The government’s eye (understandably) has been fixed on big issues like the environment and trade, where progress has been slow and very difficult. Open government raises new questions that may seem to make things even worse: Will open information compromise government’s ability to hold confidential discussions? If power is less centralized, how will the PMO ensure consistency in its messages or coordinate action across different departments? Will “open policy-making” commit the government to policies it disagrees with (see electoral reform)?

All these questions have good answers, but I’m not sure the folks in the PMO know that. I suspect they are worried that open government initiatives would create more problems than they’d solve, possibly throwing their whole agenda into a tailspin.

We’ve seen this before. From the opposition benches, openness and transparency look great, but then you win power and suddenly centralization and secrecy look like indispensable conditions of effective government. It’s like Stockholm syndrome. I think Stephen Harper was afflicted by it.

So, let me make two points that the PM might want to ponder as he looks for Butts’ replacement.

First, it is a mistake to see centralization as a wanton power-grab. It’s a syndrome: Governments tend to see centralization as the only viable response to the increasing speed, complexity, and digitization of our society. No government is immune to this.

Nevertheless, the view is wrong – at least, it had better be wrong, because the implications are ruinous. If it is true, our governments are condemned to slowly choking democracy to death, because that is the price of effective governance in a digital world.

Second, if open government contains the solution to centralization (as I believe it does), this is not a plug-and-play deal. There isn’t a pre-packaged model that we can just insert in a slot somewhere and make open government mesh with everything.

Every government is different, and we have lots to learn about how the tools of openness and transparency can be used to strengthen democracy AND support effective government. This will take time and effort. All we should expect of Trudeau is to get the ball rolling, which brings us back to Butts’ successor.

Open government has slid way down the Liberals’ agenda, yet study after study shows there is a serious and growing crisis around trust. Lack of it undermines a government’s ability to make and execute difficult decisions. It is like a cancer on democracy.

Ironically, the knee-jerk response from governments everywhere is more centralization and control. That’s the culture Pierre Trudeau institutionalized in our national government during the 1970s and we have been saddled with it ever since. It must change.

Openness and transparency are the answer. Choosing a principal secretary with a deep understanding of the challenges – and a firm commitment to solving them – would be a big step toward getting this part of the agenda back on track.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 
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