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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Why the Political Right Should Fear Open Data

I look forward to the chance to engage.

A strict focus on winning the next election is the political equivalent of making a movie without planting seeds for a sequel; nobody aims that small any more.  The goal is franchise, a political legacy that doesn't just shape policy, it converts audiences.  Political Parties want empires, not democracies.

Enter Stephen Harper, stage right - according to many, including Paul Wells, Harper has at least in degrees achieved his infamous hidden agenda, a Phantom Menace-like Machiavellian plot to reshape Canada in conservative ways, ensuring no future Prime Minister will ever be able to rub out his watermark.

Here's the long and short of the tricks those wily Conservatives have tried to pull on a generally somnambulent Canadian public.  By focusing on emotional trigger issues like crime, punishment, fear of The Other, someone else getting more than you and simultaneously withdrawing or undermining public data, the Harper Conservatives have attempted to starve public curiosity and appetite for innovation and instead get them relying strictly on their reactive, selfish, emotional selves.  Keep calm and carry on, the message goes, without a look beyond.  Leave the big uninteresting stuff to daddy.

Pats on the back for Team Harper - you've truly done a great job of getting Canadians upset with the status quo in politics.

In one form or another, the rest of Canada's political right is trying to pull the same trick - stir up emotional reactions of anger, fear and everyone's favourite, resentment.  Bitter people are inwards-focused and interested in punishment, not comprehension; they are theoretically content to live minimalist existences within their castle walls, so long as everyone else is kept out.  Ontario's Tim Hudak is so good at this shtick, he comes across as an angry, resentful and reactive guy pretty much all the time.  

As an example; one of the things Hudak is railing against now is Premier Wynne's predilection for consultation, open data and holding conversations.  Leaders know when to make choices, he says - they don't waste time on endless consultations, they act first and react to those who oppose them later.  He figures that, by undermining Wynne in the way politicians traditionally undermine each other (with the big hand motions and exaggerated reactions fit for the stage, not the screen) he can undermine public confidence in her, as an individual, making them more likely to react against her by voting for someone else.

There's an argument to made for this approach, of course - Team Harper has been making that argument for 10 years.  Put down government and put down the other Opposition Parties, then form government on the backs of the ensuing protest.  Once in power, start railing against everyone else that thinks differently than you do, always focusing on turning people against - never for.  

In slow, easy, incremental steps (more than anything because Harper fears public backlash like his own shadow) the CPC has been boiling the Canadian frog, trying to change the structure of what is Canada is.  Get them mad, keep them distracted, starve them of data and come across as supremely confident at all costs.  We know there this approach has gotten them.

The New Canadian Harper Government can (and does) boast loudly about safety, economic fundamentals and natural resources, but where Canadians are increasingly fretting is about the decline of our democracy, opportunities for sustained personal growth that carries on into meaningful careers and lefty issues like the environment and aboriginal rights.  For their part, bureaucracies across Canada are talking about structural change in the hopes of realigning our public institutions into some form of sustainable.

Which is where initiatives like Open Government, Open Data and Open Dialogue come in.  The Opposition in Ontario are painting this move as a lack of decisiveness, a reactive bait-and-switch move to change the channel away from scandal.  It's a mistake on their part; at this juncture in history, focusing on government failings only makes the people hungrier for a more direct stake in the game - exactly what Team Harper has been discouraging.

Here's what they're missing.  A focus on open data, innovative information platforms with visual flair that are accessed using the latest cool toys, an emphasis on the value of diverse opinions and the like causes people to think with the proactive, prosocial part of their brains.  It asks the question and invites an answer, then combines those answers, empowering an increasing amount of folk to get engaged, connect dots and feel the positive neurological wins that result.

In short, the "B" Arc for Open Government is to shift public consciousness into a more liberal gear.

Justin Trudeau is all about affability, open dialogue, listening and the appearance of listening. Successful politicians like Naheed Nenshi embrace the public and embrace social media (though it helps that they have a natural comfort level with people and communication, which is not the same thing as messaging).

Creative ideas are insidious, infectious things - like the Call Me Maybe meme, once you get 'em in your head they're hard to shake loose, especially when everyone around you is being seen to participate in the process.  Instead of being afraid of what might be taken away from you, you start feeling like you want to board the train before it leaves the station.

The Political Right is right to be critical and suspicious of open information and an emphasis on shared solutions; structural innovations are the exact opposite of what they've been trying to achieve.  The problem is, if they don't up the innovative ante, they are liable to get left behind.

It's happened before, after all.

I worry none at all over the notion that Harper has fundamentally changed Canada in irreparable ways.  
The Tokugawas and the Ottomans did the same thing, yet the world's carried on since.

That's the thing about progress - it's inescapable.  You simply can't stop the signal; the best you can hope for is to carry on with it.

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