National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

When Canadians learned last year that Parliament’s Board of Internal Economy operates in complete secrecy, many were incredulous. “It’s undemocratic,” they fumed.

Justin Trudeau agrees. His Private Member’s Bill proposes that all government data and information be made open by default, including the BOIE. This could shake old-style accountability to its foundations.

Trudeau did not invent the principle of Open by Default, nor is it new. It is part of the Open Government movement now being discussed in governments around the world. Even the Harper government’s Open Government website calls for the creation of a culture based on this principle.

But talk is cheap. Trudeau’s bill is noteworthy because it sets out a clear program to implement the principle, which would be enshrined in legislation. It includes significant new powers to allow the Information Commissioner to act as a watchdog. It also brings the issue to the floor of the Commons, where the bill could spark serious debate.

In case anyone has forgotten, accountability is the issue that brought Stephen Harper to power. After the sponsorship scandal, he promised to fix accountability, once and for all. It is instructive to contrast the two initiatives.

In 2006 Harper’s government passed the Federal Accountability Act, which established a list of new rules to curb illicit influence, including new spending limits for political parties and new limits on individual donations to parties.

In Harper’s approach, government sets the accountability rules that people will abide by; and it decides what information the public needs to apply them. Information is at the centre of this. It shines a light in places that otherwise would remain hidden—it creates transparency.

But because government makes the rules and controls the flow of information, transparency and accountability turn out to be highly selective. We only get to see the places that government wants us to see. Apparently, this does not include the BOIE.

Trudeau’s approach throws the doors to transparency and accountability wide open. In his view, data and information are public assets. To say that they are “open by default” is to say that they belong to citizens, and citizens have a right to access them.

If Trudeau’s bill is passed, a huge amount of information that is secret will become public, shedding light on all kinds of government activities that are now hidden. This, in turn, will change how accountability works by encouraging citizens to debate and discuss the appropriateness of these activities, rather than depending on government to choose the places, set the rules and supply the information.

MPs expenses are a timely example. Once they are posted on a public website, citizens can get involved in deciding whether they are appropriate. For example, they may decide that a minister who expenses $16 for a glass of orange juice is extravagant and wasteful, no matter what the rules say.

Some will argue that Open by Default goes too far and will compromise government’s effectiveness. For example, they may worry that without secrecy trade negotiations or diplomacy would fail. But let’s be clear. Open by Default does not mean the end of secrecy. Some secrecy is essential to government. The real question is how much and where.

Open by Default sets a new standard by shifting the burden onto government to explain why secrecy is necessary, on a case-by-case basis. A government that wants to withhold some data or information must provide the public with an adequate reason, such as national security or privacy concerns.

This does not mean it gets to say, “We are protecting personal privacy” or “That is how government diplomacy is done” and then refuse to release the information—the way it often does now. This is where the Information Commissioner comes in. Trudeau rightly sees that this officer must have adequate powers to demand a full account of the reasons, assess whether they are legitimate and, if necessary, compel government to release the information.

Nor should we be swayed by arguments that too much change will create turmoil. Change is needed. Government may require some secrecy, but it certainly doesn’t require as much as it has now. The new approach would force officials to find new ways to do business.

Finally, we should note that Open by Default does not exclude or conflict with Harper’s approach to accountability in the 2006 Act. Government is still free to set clear standards for accountability in areas it feels are necessary—such as limits on campaign contributions—and it can still require specific kinds of reporting to support this.

In the end, Open by Default calls for a fundamental culture change in government that would vastly expand transparency and accountability by requiring public officials to see themselves as stewards of public information, rather than owners of it.

The implications are far-reaching. Indeed, this could be the beginning of a genuine paradigm shift in how accountability works. But first the bill must pass. By most accounts, that is unlikely. While the NDP may support it, the Conservatives almost certainly won’t.

That raises a final question: Will Trudeau remain as committed to the program in the bill, should he become prime minister? I can’t speak for him but, as a committed advocate for better government, I can only hope that he will.

 

Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@Canada2020.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

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