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National Opinion Centre

It’s time to declare war on government secrecy

There’s been a lot of talk about lying in politics lately.  Between the Senate, compromising videos, corruption in Quebec, and gas plants in Ontario, no one is sure anymore who is telling the truth or when.  But perhaps the most distressing part is the public’s growing willingness to accept that this is somehow normal or okay.

Only a decade ago, a scandal like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s would have meant political death. Today, seasoned observers agree that his willingness to brazen it out just might work. When there’s enough dust in the air, ordinary people give up trying to see through it.

Worse, they are weary of trying. More and more of them seem resigned to the view that lying really doesn’t matter that much, as long as governments do enough of the other things people want. The disturbing conclusion is that, if a politician is prepared to say and do anything, there’s a reasonable chance he/she can survive just about anything.

Is this the new normal?

Well…it could be, but it doesn’t have to be. There is an alternative — and I don’t mean that good people should try to convince bad people to find their conscience. Anyone who doesn’t already believe integrity matters is not likely to be persuaded by any argument I can imagine.

The real question, I think, is this: What can honest politicians do to ensure integrity prevails? My answer is that they must band together to change the conditions that now permit this culture of deceit to grow.  It is time we declare war on government secrecy.

There’s an old adage that liars don’t last long in close-knit communities.  They are quickly exposed and held to account.  Successful liars need places to hide. They flourish in busy spaces with lots of people because they can keep moving on before their lies catch up with them.

Modern governments are such places. They are large, complex, multi-layered organizations with lots of nooks and crannies.  But even more conducive to deceit is their penchant for secrecy.

Secrecy allows liars to obscure the truth by suppressing important information.  If we want to stop the rot in the system, the question honest politicians need to wrestle to the ground is why governments need this kind of secrecy.  Many good people still believe they do.

Now, to be sure, there are cases where secrecy is appropriate.  Obvious examples include national security, diplomacy and police investigations.  But pretty much everyone agrees on this.  We are in no danger of suddenly becoming too open here, so let’s not get side-tracked.

The real question concerns all the other things governments do, from budget planning and trade negotiations to policy and program development.  Why do governments need to conduct all this business behind closed doors?

The usual answer lies in government’s long experience as a negotiator.  Policymaking is often cast as a struggle between members of the public who are seeking to gain control of government’s limited resources for their own ends.  The task of government is to see that the benefits and costs of new policies and programs are shared fairly among the “stakeholders.”

Secrecy is viewed as an essential condition for such negotiations.  It allows a government to test stakeholders’ positions and to move them toward fair and reasonable compromises.  It also ensures that the process will not be unduly influenced by other voices, such as opposition parties or the media.

So, in this view, secrecy is necessary to protect the public good.  In order to advance its plan, government often has to play its cards close to its vest.  If it reveals its bottom line too early, it may lose control of the process and fail to achieve its goals.

Now, while this is a fine theory, it bears almost no resemblance to how governments today actually work.  Far from helping them advance a plan, government secrecy has become the primary obstacle to making and implementing plans.

In fact, such plans — when they actually exist — are usually shared by a handful of people at the top, while almost everyone else inside the organization is left guessing about them.  As a result, speculation, gossip and rumours multiply inside government — at the political and public service levels — as well as outside.

The result is disorder, lack of trust, poor morale and, ultimately, paralysis.  Planning becomes impossible because no one is sure what the “real plan” is.  And that pretty much sums up the state of play inside many governments.

So in reality the main barrier to better government accountability — secrecy — is equally a barrier to better government performance.  The tired old saw that openness will paralyze government is not only outdated, it is misguided.

Modern governments require clear plans and a constant flow of reliable, timely information.  Providing it does mean that government business will have to be done differently, but the belief that there is only one way to do government business is part of the secrecy myth that must be exploded.

As for the emerging culture of deceit — and the disturbing trend toward public acceptance of it — this is nothing less than a sinister assault on democracy to which there can be only one answer: We must ensure that truth can be found and made public.

Real accountability and effectiveness thus converge on the same conclusion: Governments need a whole new suite of tools and measures that will systematically require that they become more open and transparent.  We can settle for nothing less.

Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

 

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