OTTAWA – A federal experiment in digital democracy has flopped, with critics saying it was never anything more than a gimmick in the first place.
Since 2006, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has conducted annual pre-budget consultations with Canadians via the web, asking for electronic input into the country’s fiscal blueprint.
In launching so-called e-consultations when the Conservatives first came to power more than seven years ago, Flaherty said the “new government is taking accountability and openness to a higher level.”
But the online consultations never drew more than 7,760 submissions, at their peak in 2007. And the latest round for the 2013 budget attracted a paltry 642, the second-lowest after the 600 received for budget 2010.
“This is sort of a way to create the illusion of reaching out or encouraging some sort of democratic intercourse,” said Jason Lacharite, a political science professor at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.
“It’s very disingenuous.”
The first e-consultations asked Canadians to send an email to a Finance Department address. That 14-day consultation period drew 5,260 submissions.
Starting in the 2007 round, submissions could be sent through a department website. The consultation period has also been expanded dramatically, to more than 100 days in each of the last three years.
But the response rate has fallen sharply since 2007, with the exception of the round leading to the pivotal Jan. 27, 2009, budget, designed to respond to the global meltdown and recession. The number of submissions hit 7,421 for that year.
There have been fewer than 800 on average in each year since.
The pre-budget consultations of the last few years posed specific questions, such as “How can the government further encourage private-sector growth and leadership in the economy?” A form on the website also asked voluntary demographic questions, such as age, income and education.
“Nearly all contributors are willing to voluntarily share information regarding the province in which they live and their gender,” says a summary of the 2013 round, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
“Participants were much less inclined to share information about their income, age, education and employment, thus precluding generalizations in these areas.”
“As with previous similar exercises, many respondents do not directly answer the questions as posed, preferring instead to comment on a wider variety of issues.”
The 2013 round appears to have been the target of a regional campaign, with many respondents from New Brunswick raising issues about disabilities. There were also numerous calls to “eliminate the CBC.”
The head of a group that promotes web-based democracy dismissed the exercise as smoke and mirrors.
“It’s basically a gimmick because they want to give the impression that they’re actually consulting people, when in fact they’re not,” said Michael Nicula, founder of the Online Party of Canada with 4,000 supporters.
“They should be ashamed of themselves for doing it.”
Nicula began a website last year that allows individual Canadian voters, who are verified by his group through Elections Canada lists, to “vote” on all bills before the House of Commons and Senate, and to propose other measures that can be debated online.
Lacharite also called the pre-budget online consultations “gimmickry.”
“I don’t think there’s anything really substantive in these exchanges that go on,” he said.
“And that’s largely because while they might ask for public input, these (budget) decisions are made in fairly closed quarters — and they like it that way.”
Nicula suggested the fall-off in numbers comes as Canadians fail to get genuine feedback from the exercise, and lose trust that their views matter.
A spokesman for the Finance Department acknowledged that response totals have varied, but said e-consultations are only a component of the invitation for input.
“Online consultations are just one part of the government’s pre-budget efforts, which also include cross-country outreach by a number of ministers,” said David Barnabe.
“The House of Commons finance committee also has recently introduced an online component to their annual pre-budget consultations.”
The finance committee on June 7 launched a new round of pre-budget consultations using a web-based template that asks a series of structured questions, requiring respondents to identify themselves or their group.
The website is closed to new submissions Aug. 5, with a summary report expected in December for the 2014 budget.
The committee also publishes all submissions on its website. For the 2013 budget, 324 submissions were received from groups, another 475 from individuals.
On the web:
Finance committee consultations: www.parl.gc.ca/CommitteeBusiness/CommitteeHome.aspx?Cmte=FINA&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=41&Ses=1
Online Party of Canada: www.onlineparty.ca