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Information is not power, openness is

There’s an old saying that information is power. If I have it and you don’t, I’ve got a leg up on you, right? Well, actually, no. As politicians and bureaucrats are learning—often the hard way—the reverse is at least as likely to be true: real power calls for openness and transparency, not secrecy.

The Senate scandal leaps to mind. Everyone now agrees that if the PMO had just let the Senate enquiry take its course, it would all be behind them.

But my topic here is on how ministers conduct regular business. At the moment, secrecy reigns, even though it often benefits no one—least of all, ministers. Let me use some examples to explain.

In developing the Canada Job Grant, the Harper government played its cards very close to its vest. It said nothing, and then sprung the new program on the provinces, all of whom quickly lined up against it. Why did the government think this was a good plan?

The feds obviously knew the provinces would oppose the idea, so they must have concluded that stealth was the only way to get buy-in. Basically, the minister would develop the program in secret and then tell the provinces to take it or leave it. Some would say yes and, eventually, the others would come on side. In short, the strategy seems to have been ‘divide and conquer.’

The idea that people—and governments—can be tricked this way has a long history. If political power is the ability to make decisions and get others to accept them, “strategy” is about how to engineer that acceptance—often with no holds barred. And, to be fair, tricking people has often worked.

But times are changing. I want to pose an issue about ‘process’ here that needs to be aired. First, the further back we go in time—three, four, five decades—the more likely we are to find that strategy was the only real tool governments had to support controversial decisions.

This is no longer the case. Today, most governments have a whole suite of processes that have evolved over time and are designed to help bring people and organizations onside.

For example, when former Minister Diane Finley decided to create the new CJG program, she would have turned to her officials at Human Resources and Social Development to design it. In turn, they would have talked to their counterparts in Immigration, the business community, institutions that provide training, and so on—all of whom have a big stake in the new program.

For a department like HRSDC, these discussions are now a normal part of program development. We know, however, that the process was not allowed to unfold as it should. Officials were prevented from speaking to all the interested parties or freely sharing information about the department’s plans. We can only guess how they felt about this, all the while knowing they were about to blindside their provincial counterparts.

In the end, however, there is a kind of poetic justice in the provinces’ collective rebuff. Far from increasing its power over them, all the feds have done is paint themselves into a corner. More to the point, the government has clearly demonstrated that these processes exist for a reason—and that ministers who mess with them, do so at their peril.

A similar lesson can be drawn from the F-35 fighter jets. Consider the scars Julian Fantino and Peter McKay carry from their battle to keep escalating costs a secret—and to what end?

If the government had just been open and transparent about the costs, it would have had nothing to apologize for. Contractors may raise their estimates, but if the process is sound, the government can’t be blamed for the contractors’ erratic behaviour.

So why does the obsession with secrecy persist?

The culture of secrecy is rooted in the traditional view that ministers are, first and foremost, decision-makers, whose decisions need to be backed up by a strategy. This made a lot of sense three or four decades ago, but it misrepresents how governments work today.

Good ministers are now more stewards of processes than decision-makers. All important government business follows a process of one sort or another. If it is well designed and executed, most of the decisions usually flow from it. It is when the minister or cabinet tries to meddle with the process that things start to go wrong.

This is not to say ministers shouldn’t make any decisions. They should. The point is that the real scope for decisions is easily exaggerated and, as a result, ministers often want to overstep their limits and try to “manage” the process to arrive at a decision they favour. The moment this kind of gerrymandering starts, secrecy must be invoked to cover the tracks.

To their credit, the ministers at Public Works seem to be learning this lesson. When Rona Ambrose was there, she led the procurement process for new combat ships and won high praise precisely because she saw her role as making the process work, rather than engineering an outcome.

When the projected costs recently rose by $4 billion, Diane Finley avoided controversy by quickly announcing the adjusted figures.

Good for them! A minister that learns to trust these processes, rather than trying to manage them, will find that his/her decisions get far more traction. Making them even more open and transparent will only further strengthen and legitimate the results.

So there is a lesson here for all governments: when strategy is allowed to trump process—say, by hiding critical information from those with a genuine stake in the issue—the risk of failure rises exponentially. Secrecy, in other words, is a shoddy way to make policy.

 

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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