A modest proposal for the NDP: Unmuzzle the government economists

Just how committed would the NDP be to free-speaking bureaucrats?

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In a mailer sent out Thursday evening, NDP MP and science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart informed his friends that he was dismayed to see my post last week with respect to public servants being prevented from speaking freely with respect to their opinions on government policies. He wondered if I had been paying attention and whether I had noticed that the NDP had, in fact, proposed what he views as a workable solution to the problem of muzzled scientists.

The NDP solution seems to be to allow scientists (the proposed motion does not bother to define scientists—perhaps it’s self-evident?) to speak out on most anything including allowing, “scientists to present viewpoints that extend beyond their scientific research and incorporate their expert or personal opinions providing they specify they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative, of their department or agency.” Under the NDP’s motion, some civil servants could, when they so choose, take off their civil servant hats and speak as independent scientists on matters which extend beyond their research and involve not just their expert but also their personal opinions? I can’t see how that would end badly at all. 

I wonder whether the NDP would support the following motion:

That, in the opinion of the House, federal departments and agencies conducting economic and other social policy research should identify, develop, and implement communication policies that:

(a) actively support and encourage federal government economists and other researchers to speak freely to the media and the public about economic and financial matters based on their official research, including theoretical and empirical results, approaches, findings, and conclusions;

(b) allow federal economists to present viewpoints that extend beyond their research and incorporate their expert or personal opinions providing they specify they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative, of their department or agency;

(c) ensure that public affairs or communications officers, elected officials, and ministerial staff do not restrict, limit, or prevent federal economists from responding to media requests in a timely and accurate manner;

(d) prohibit public affairs or communications officers, elected officials, and ministerial staff from directing federal economists to suppress or alter their findings;

and (e) affirm the right of federal economists and/or statisticians to review, approve, and comment publicly on the final version of any proposed publication including but not limited to the federal budget, main estimates, monetary policy reviews, or economic forecasts, that significantly relies on their research, identifies them as an author or contributor, or purports to represent their professional opinion.

Perhaps the NDP will be amenable to the motion proposed above which would allow for some of the many other voices contributing research to federal government departments to speak, at will, on that research and on other areas in which they have personal opinions. Somehow I don’t think they’ll be too keen.

In my original post, I argued that some unmuzzlers would like to see federal scientists able to present viewpoints or opinions on matters beyond simply conveying the results of their own research—a position described as a strawman and/or a red herring. In fact, that scientists should be able to do exactly this seems to be the position of both the union representing federal government scientists and of the official Opposition. In my rebuttal I referenced a question from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada that asked whether federal government scientists should, if faced with a departmental decision or action that they felt could harm public health, safety or the environment, share their concerns with the public or media. The NDP’s motion would allow for federal scientists to be able to do so, even in areas extending beyond their scientific expertise—it’s what Kennedy Stewart described as workable solution.

The NDP’s proposed solution is subject to exactly the issues I highlighted in my first post, and I would argue goes beyond what groups such as Evidence for Democracy have been advocating. Under the proposed NDP motion, scientists who contributed to publications, presumably including those supporting policy decisions such as Regulatory Impact Analysis Statements for environmental policy, would be able to comment on these issues publicly with no limits even if their comment were based on personal opinion, while other civil servants who contributed, compiled, presented, or analyzed evidence would be granted no such privilege. (Note: scientists would have to state that they were not speaking on behalf of their departments, no takebacks, no erasies) This solution would only lead to the public obtaining part of the evidence and thus having a skewed view of the policies and publications presented to them. Unless, of course, the privilege of free comment based on personal opinion were to be extended to all public servants. It might get a little noisy in Ottawa were that to be the case. If so, I’ll look forward to my conversations with government economists after the first NDP budget in early 2016.