Ottawa’s promise-tracker is a good idea that doesn’t deliver
It’s hard to decide whether a review of the government’s new promise-tracker should give them points for a step toward reporting results or lambaste them for using the kind of Orwellian descriptors that casually lie about the results.
The new website – more precisely a mandate-letter tracker – grew from the “deliverology” notions that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals earnestly chucked around early in their term. That’s supposed to be a discipline of focusing on outcomes, and it requires reporting on what you’ve done, publicly. The tracker collates all the specific items that the Prime Minister tasked his ministers with achieving in their mandate letters – a version of Liberal promises – and then reports on progress.
Let’s pause to note that the tracker is what bureaucrats in the 1980s British TV show Yes, Minister would qualify as a “courageous” proposal – fraught with political risk and potential embarrassment. Listing promises calls attention to the ones you have broken, especially if you evaluate progress.
Perhaps we must expect a little soft-soaping. So electoral reform is listed under “not being pursued,” a phrase that delicately describes the discarding of a promise that seemed good for a third party but not a government – but makes it clear it is dead. Some of the other items get silly.
The promise to “balance the budget by 2019-20,” a task given to Finance Minister Bill Morneau as item #1 in his mandate letter, is listed as “underway with challenges.” Unfortunately, that only applies if you remove the deadline of “by 2019-20,” which certainly won’t be met, and the phrase “balance the budget,” which is nowhere in any specific plan put forward by the current government.
This promise certainly had “challenges,” but it cannot, in any normal sense of the term, be described as “underway.” “Ditched” might have been appropriate; “replaced by new policy” would have been acceptable. But “underway” is false.
The promise to “improve access to information to enhance the openness of government” is marked as “underway, on track,” presumably because the rubric “egregious betrayal” wasn’t available. Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s mandate letter actually tasked him with widening the scope of the law as the Liberals promised in the 2015 election campaign, notably by making the Access to Information Act apply to ministers’ offices. That’s not happening. Mr. Brison tabled a bill that, according to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, weakens access to information. It’s off the rails, not on track.
George Orwell wrote that “political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The new mandate-letter tracker doesn’t justify homicide, but there are masquerading falsehoods and lots of hardened wind.
The Liberal government wrote their own report card, and – surprise! – they get high marks.
At this point, if you’re a Liberal partisan, you might be thinking this column has focused on lambasting the government’s self-serving selfevaluation more than lauding a new tracking tool. That’s the point. When an accountability tool dodges accountability, it’s hard not to focus on the evasion.
There are legitimate promises kept among the 66 qualified as “Completed, fully met.” The Liberal promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees is fairly described as “Completed, modified.” Some things are legitimately matters of interpretation. And just going through the exercise of publicly collating the commitments is a useful step.
Dom Bernard, one of four nonpoliticians who put together the Trudeau Meter website, which tracks whether the Liberals have fulfilled their campaign promises, says he thinks it’s a valuable exercise.
His site follows campaign promises rather than mandate-letter commitments, but it is far less positive: the Trudeau Meter lists 36 of 226 promises as “broken,” where the government tracker lists three “not being pursued” out of 322. He said he’s not so naive that he would expect a government to be unbiased, but the public can compare the tracker to multiple sources, and make their own judgments.
That’s true. The problem is not that the public will innocently buy all the tracker’s misrepresentations. It’s that the very notion of an accountability exercise is discredited by avoiding accountability. Maybe the government could have garnered trust by being, as Mr. Bernard put it, “brutally honest.” Maybe that’s too much courage. The tracking site deserves a good grade for the idea, but it lacks standards, so it fails in deliverology.