OTTAWA — The Conservatives are finally putting the social into their use of social media.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement will host the government’s inaugural Twitter town hall this Thursday, taking questions for 90 minutes on the subject of developing an open government strategy for Canada.
While many MPs, as well as government departments and agencies, use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, they’ve all faced criticism for only using them as ways to push out information rather that interact in real-time with citizens.
That Clement is hosting the first live social media event isn’t an accident.
His nickname in government circles is the “Minister for Twitter.” He has over 19,000 followers and has used social media to make pronouncements of government policy as well as to speak directly to Opposition MPs, the media and Canadians, sometimes much to the chagrin of the prime minister’s office.
Though he’s more than comfortable in the medium, on Thursday he’ll only be providing the message.
As it’s a formal government consultation, staffers will type responses to questions submitted in both English and French during two consecutive sessions run via the Treasury Board’s official Twitter accounts.
Clement will provide the answers.
The town hall helps fulfil a requirement of the Open Government Partnership, an international effort led by the U.S. and Brazil to see governments commit to promoting transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption, and use new technology to make government more effective, and accountable.
Part of the commitment is presenting an action plan on meeting those goals at a meeting next year, and public consultations must be held on the substance of the plan.
“Rather than get bureaucrat x14 and myself in a room to decide what those priorities are I thought we’d open it up and get some feedback by citizens themselves,” Clement said in an interview.
“And what better way to do that then Twitter since that’s something I’m on more than one occasion,” Clement said.
Aside from the town hall, the government is soliciting input from Canadians until January 16 on a broader set of questions related to open government via a Treasury Board website.
Clement said he sees a future for the use of social media interactions to develop government policy.
“I’m very interested in crowdsourcing technique as a way to help government in the future make decisions and ultimately perhaps in some instances pushing down the decision making away from government, away from Ottawa to actual citizens making decisions for themselves on matters they deem to be important,” he said.
While the Opposition commended the idea of the consultations, NDP MP Charlie Angus scoffed at the idea that it represents a commitment to open government.
Angus was particularly riled that it is Clement heading up the initiative, given the NDP’s assertion that Clement has misled Canadians on the handling of funds allocated for the G8/G20 summits.
“Because he goes on Twitter and uses words like crowdsourcing, people are going to be fooled,” Angus said.
“Open and accountable government is knowing how decisions are made.”
The Conservatives were lambasted by the Opposition all fall for limiting debate on several government bills and placing what used to be open committee conversations behind closed doors.
Canada’s Access to Information Commissioner has also bemoaned the state of information freedom in Canada, noting in her most recent report that fewer than one fifth of all requests currently result in all information being released.
Clement said he’s heard the narrative that his government is a closed shop but said the open government agenda is a good faith effort.
“Quite frankly we’re trying to create better avenues for dialogue,” Clement said.
“I know the Opposition likes to monopolize that kind of dialogue and monopolize the narrative and I think what we’ve got to do is talk to more people, get more people involved in political discussions from all parts of the country, not just the political class, not just the media class,” he said.
Clement said the breakdown in the access to information system is an institutional problem.
“I would contend that it is a hallmark of governments everywhere, even in free and democratic societies, to try and hoard information to create barriers and walls between the governed and the governors and that’s the institutional bias,” Clement said.
“We are involved in the culture change here.”
Digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis said Clement is taking a risk with holding the formal Twitter event.
There will be inevitable criticism of which questions are and aren’t answered and with controversy swirling over the minister’s role in G8/G20 spending, there’s the possibility that many won’t be on topic.
But Blevis cautioned against undue criticism, noting the government has to be given the chance to make mistakes when it comes to figuring out how to use social media.
“It’s a starting point,” Blevis said.
“The less critical people can be, the greater chances there will be to more follow up to this.”
On the web: For information on the Twitter town hall, see www.twitter.com/TBS—Canada or www.twitter.com/SCT—Canada