Saturday, January 10, 2009

Watch the spin on your way to the facts

I wrote in last week’s column about doing my part for the next few months to take the measure of the B.C. government, in the interest of helping us all be better informed come the May election.
It’s only just sinking in this week what a complicated task that’s going to be. I’m neck-deep in fascinating statistics already, but no doubt you’re familiar with that Benjamin Disraeli warning about “lies, damn lies and statistics.” I love stats for their simplicity, but they spin like a dream and are rarely as black and white as they first appear.
What is good government, anyway? It strikes me that I’ll have to settle that point in my head if I’m to have any success with this exercise. The answer that comes quickest to my mind is that good government acts at all times in the best interests of British Columbians overall.
A big job. But would you want any less? No government in the world gets things right all the time, of course, but that’s not to say we don’t want them to try. I want a government that understands its job is to run every aspect of the province well, on behalf of everyone who lives here.
What that means at the individual level varies wildly, which is the point. British Columbians come from all walks of life, and differ substantially about what they want from their government. It’s up to government to take all of that into account, and to run the province in a way that everyone recognizes as fair and wise even when it isn’t exactly how they’d do it.
What that looks like in terms of actual government performance - well, that’s a tricky thing. In a tangled global economy, in a province weighted down by a deliberately distant federal government and frequent ineptitude at the municipal level, how DO you gauge provincial performance when so many other factors are at play?
To the Liberals’ great credit, they did come up with the concept of annual service plans for measuring government performance when first elected in 2001. The plans establish specific goals for every ministry, and each year report on progress toward those goals.
But are the goals in the service plans the right ones? Ah, that’s a whole other question. Some seem to merely measure the measurements, while others are vague enough to be interpreted any number of ways. (For instance, does reaching a goal of reducing the welfare caseload to a certain percentage of the B.C. population mean more people have been helped to find jobs, or simply cut off assistance?)
Still, the plans - on the government Web site at are packed with information. Some of it is puzzling and some is downright useless, but it all helps when it comes to putting the pieces together on government performance.
Equally important are sources of information from outside government, based on the assumption that government plays down or buries things that cast it in a bad light. But it’s five months before an election, and the government isn’t the only one with an agenda. Reader, beware.
An example: I was digging around in homelessness statistics and came across a 2007 report from the New Democrats establishing the number of homeless British Columbians at almost 11,000. I’m sure the NDP didn’t just make the figure up, but can the numbers be trusted absolutely when they come from such a political source? (I guess the real test will be whether they act on those findings if elected.)
If you’re reading a report from the Fraser Institute, keep in mind that it’s probably leans a little too right. If it’s from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it’s likely too left. If it’s from a business group, social issues will have been ignored; meanwhile, reports from social-justice groups ignore the business case. The remedy for that is to read ‘em all.
I’d love to see a flood of letters to the editor and opinion pieces over the next five months on the subject of good governance. What does that term mean to you? What do you know from your own experiences these past eight years in B.C. that might be useful to the rest of us in gauging the current government’s performance?
For once I want to go into an election feeling absolutely clear about my choices. Hope you’ll join me.

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