Aspects of JAG worth saving

Implausible survey findings don't add much to the debate

Editorial: Cape Breton Post
Saturday, June 21, 2003

The Issue: Community Capacity A Useful Legacy

Two recent newspaper stories, the first in our paper on June 11 and the second in The Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, report some details of a public-opinion survey done in May for the doomed Joint Action Group on the Muggah Creek cleanup. According to JAG officials, the results of the 72-question survey, available so far only in the form of a draft report, show strong, one could say overwhelming support for the JAG model and an impressive degree of endorsement for its achievements.

"It's important for government to know how the community feels about JAG," explained the group's public information officer, Germaine LeMoine. "It's obvious they do feel they want community-based representation. The message is loud and clear."

To put this bluntly, it's difficult to accept these selective scraps of survey as proving much other than that JAG is scrambling to salvage what it can of its own continuation in some diminished form. This improvisation follows from the abrupt notification late last month that senior governments are pulling the plug on JAG, with only vague promises of some type of community liaison to take its place as the cleanup crawls towards government approval and implementation.

Leaked bits of the survey strain credulity. One question asked respondents whether they'd prefer to see the JAG agreement continue or government carry on without any such an agreement. More than 85 percent of the 509 people who answered the question said they're prefer to see the JAG model continue. The preamble to the question noted that the agreement through JAG ensures that "all activities involving decisions concerning expenditures of public funds, such as calls for proposals, consideration of tenders, awarding of contracts, hiring and management of consultants [are] done with the highest level of integrity and that all parties, government and community alike, are to operate in an open and transparent manner." A more leading setup to the question could hardly have been written.

To reject the JAG model after such a pitch would be to vote for corruption, secrecy and backroom deals. JAG has little to gain from this sort of fanciful propaganda now. It would be preferable to advance those aspects of the process that are clearly worth preserving in some way. Two come readily to mind.

One is what's called community capacity, the knowledge and experience built up among dedicated volunteers over the five years - not so much technical knowledge as the street smarts to ask good questions of technical and bureaucratic people. It is an acquired skill, to be sure, and one which can greatly contribute to community-understanding of developments to come if sensitive provision is made to keep the best of these people involved.

Asking questions is little use without people to answer them. One of the most under-appreciated aspects of JAG has been that its formally constituted authority required very senior government people, regional directors in fact, to attend its public forums, to participate in debates, and to explain government positions, perspectives and decisions. Even MPs would often envy such opportunity to hold mandarins to account in a public forum.

Whatever replaces JAG should include these two aspects: the capacity of community representatives to question knowledgeably and skillfully, and the opportunity to ask in a context where officials and experts are obliged to answer on a periodic basis. That would be a worthy legacy for the community effort put into the JAG process since 1997.