There is nothing new under the sun

I have blogged several times over the years about the Lord government’s “report card to New Brunswickers” that I received in my mailbox one day.  It was a masterpiece of statistical spin for political purposes – unrivalled in my opinion until today.  The way they sliced and diced the numbers to put a positive spin on them was fascinating.  They used per capita, year-over-year, “since the government took power”, some compared to the national average, others not, some ignored, others overkilled.  Hard numbers, percentages, per capitas – a dizzying array of manipulated stats that ended up with a product that would convince all New Brunswickers that the province was booming under the amazing economic stewardship of the government.

I wish I hadn’t used it to start a fire one day – I wish I had kept it.  It would be Exhibit A in any graduate level course on effective political spin.

Or not – they were booted out of office not that long after the magnum opus of statistical manipulation.

Of course my understanding of a report card is that it is supposed to be clear, to the point and comparable with no varnish.  Imagine getting your child’s report card and reading that exercise in manipulation.  “Your daughter scored 22% higher than the 1957 mean score adjusted for national variations in teaching outcomes using the OCED model for socio-economically adjusted test scoring”.  Huh?  Did she get an A or a B?

I got a similar sense when I read Donald Arsenault’s op/ed about how happy he is with the employment numbers in New Brunswick.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is any inaccuracy in these numbers – I don’t have time to review them all but the presentation and analysis would suggest a far better result than I think is warranted based on a simpler assessment.

As I have said and proved using simple employment growth data, New Brunswick has underperformed the national growth rate for employment most years going back 10, 20 and 30 years.  Not a huge underperformance but enough to lead to population stagnation and continued net-out migration.

I will say as an aside the call centre industry was an amazing boost for government here.  No other province saw a single sector dominate employment growth over the past 15 years or so.   On an April to April basis from April 1993 to April 2010 there has been a net employment growth of an estimated 62,600.  If you take out the public sector employment in public admin, health care and education, you drop down to somewhere around 40,000 net new private sector jobs and if you back out the between 16,000 and 20,000 in customer contact centres, you almost have half of all new private sector jobs coming from one economic development initiative. 

That’s a stunning event that has never really been properly studied. 

But I digress.  My point with raising that remains that we have no idea what the ‘call centre’ sector will be for the next 10-20 years.

Back to my original thesis.  On a week where the government announces a new Minister of public engagement we get another example of spin.  It seems to me to properly engage the public you should start with providing a clear statement of the facts.  Serving up spin leads to more cynicism. 

The government should say it is turning out to be harder than they thought to achieve self-sufficiency.  They should say it has been hard to see new industries take root and grow here and that they will go back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong and what went right over the past few years.

I have said that I was surprised there wasn’t a significantly juiced up economic development focus – given that was the core theme of self-sufficiency.    One or two more “call centre” type initiatives would set New Brunswick firmly on the path to economic self-sufficiency.

The recession was a setback but the longer term reality remains.  Outside of one massively successful initiative (call centres), New Brunswick has not had much success in fostering the growth of new industries such as ICT, life sciences, 21st century manufacturing, – even energy.

It’s time for a gut check.  The people of New Brunswick, I think, will appreciate it.

Some friends and I chatted about how haggard Jack Keir looked reading his prepared zingers the other day at the energy conference.  The NB Power project really knocked him – and I think he should have ripped up the prefabricated zinger speech the other day and spoke to us from the gut.   Rather than polite applause I think people would have appreciated it far more.  I think he’s a strong politican and a passionate guy and straight talk would go further these days than the spin.

To conclude because I have been rambling – I think the spinners should be told to write these speeches, op/eds, Twitter feeds, etc. not from the well ingrained perspective of trying to get by the next news cycle without incident but from the perspective of how do we engage the public in the broader dialogue of the need to change.

1 thought on “There is nothing new under the sun

  1. “a clear statement of the facts”

    Do we still have ‘facts’? Too many people cannot distinguish between fact and opinion. Facts are often dismissed as ‘spin’, especially when an analysis of those facts leads to a conclusion that differs from one’s opinion. For example, anything favourable to the HQ deal was dismissed as Irving spin if it appeared in the TJ. By contrast, some truly ridiculous commentary by certain CBC radio reporters on the HQ deal was saluted by the Facebook mob. Why? Because it agreed with their pre-conceived opinion. How many people really want the ‘facts’, I wonder? People seem to be happier to have their opinions reinforced in the friendly confines of a social media group rather than looking at data.

    I don’t think that asking the spin doctors to change, or the politicians to change, is going to be productive. Legislation mandating release of more information (i.e. more transparency), legislation encouraging a more diverse mainstream hard copy media, and legislation that establishes the unis as independent public policy data analysis centers – those are things that we need to engage the public.

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