Thursday, December 16, 2010

Transparency in Government (2)

Post 27—

I have for some time planned to do a post on transparency in government but was not quite ready for it. Then the WikiLeak issue sprang up and suddenly the entire (media) world is up in arms about a deluge of government documents flooding cyberland with promises of more to come. So I felt forced to jump on the bandwagon now rather than look like a Johnny-come-late.

The reason I have been planning to write on the subject is my growing annoyance with the BC Government for making it so difficult for people to access information. Vancouver newspapers regularly feature stories about the obstacles, the time and the money it takes to obtain information that should easily be accessible to the public. Government may need to keep some issues and documents secret, at least temporarily, but after all is said and done, Government has no interests beyond the interests of the people it governs. It has no interests of its own; even less, interests that clash with the interests of the people. Well, it shouldn't have.

I have been out of BC for most of my working life and so have to rely on written history. One thing I have learned is that government opposition leaders, like Gordon Campbell, frequently berated the government of the day for refusing to divulge information and even promised that if elected, the would make access to archives easy in the name of democracy. A subsequent premier, also by the name of Gordon Campbell, and his underlings have made it almost impossible and expensive, especially for reporters and journalists, to get the info they need for their research. I feel absolutely annoyed, cheated, humiliated and despised as a citizen. Downright angry and ready to punch those responsible for such high-handed treatment of info in the nose. Who do they think they are?! Please don't expect me to be polite in such an environment.

I am no expert on this issue of transparency versus secrecy in government, but when citizens, including journalists, routinely run into serious obstacles such as lengthy delays and high charges, if not outright refusal, then you know they are not served right. Then you also know, or at least, have good grounds to suspect that the government is up to something that cannot see the daylight.

Although I could reference many articles on the subject from various Vancouver newspapers, I restrict myself to a recent article by Vincent Gogolek, “Province Loses Fight to Keep IBM Deal Secret” (Vancouver Sun, Dec. 3/2010, p. A13). Gogolek reports that it took his organization, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association six years—yes, six years!—to obtain a copy of the Government’s workplace agreement with IBM. Six years! Imagine that. Gogolek rightly argues that transparency of government contracts “is the best possible way to guarantee these arrangements are honest, free of conflicts of interest, and the best possible use of public dollars.” Both parties, Government and IBM, “fought tooth and nail to keep the contract from being released.” It was only the ruling by an adjudicator from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner that forced the issue. And then I wonder why they took so long to act.

This one particular paragraph is written and inserted into this post a day later. Things are getting worse. After I wrote that post, I came across an article in 24th News Vancouver by Mike Klassen under the title :City's Chokehold Tightens on Info." The city he refers to is my city, Vancouver and its Mayor, the man who campaigned on such a populist platform. The info screws have become increasingly tight over the life of the current administration, according to Klassen.

With my apologies, this paragraph is inserted a few days later still. The issue is getting more serious. I've talked about the BC Government and that of Vancouver City, but now I'm running into stories about Canada's Federal Government (FG) as well. So, here's another insertion. Glen McGregor of Postmedia News reports that the FG took four years to release a requested expense report about Prime Minister Stephen Harper flying from Ottawa to Edmonton with six Members of Parliament along with some staff members in order to attend a Stanley Cup hockey game there. If you know Canadian geography, you will realize that this was a long trip. This lag of four years, according to McGregor, "is emblematic of the long delays that critics say are weakening Canada's open-records law." It is "unclear why the department resisted releasing the records." A member of the opposition commented that "most Canadians would have trouble with the idea that you load it [the plane] up with your friends and head off to a playoff game." Harper's office in due time provided some explanation of the adventure, but I will tell you about that four years from now, at least, if I get an official request for information. What's the hurry? [For your interest, I am member of the PM's party, but not sure I will remain there. Too many disappointments.] (Glen McGregor, "PM's Stanley Cup Expenses Released, 4 Years Later," Vancouver Sun, Dec. 20/2010.)

Gogolek and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham both ask why the public should have to file such requests for info to begin with. Why not make them routinely available proactively? It would be in line with a constant theme of legislative committees dealing with the issue.

To that I can only shout a loud, “Amen!” The people need to know and be assured their taxes are spent justly and judiciously. Obstacles that prevent the flow of legitimate info only serve to undermine the credibility of government. It is these obstacles that finally called for WikiLeaks. The latter is a reaction to unhealthy secrecy.

Authorities who resist transparency have things to hide and are not to be trusted. They should be booted out at first chance and never voted for again. As you can see, nothing strong or bullish about my opinions!

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