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At a speech in Ottawa yesterday, Justin Trudeau pledged that a Liberal government would restore trust in our democracy through greater openness and transparency.

The speech was remarkable in at least two ways. First, if Trudeau wins, there will be no turning back. Second, if implemented, his slate of proposals would do more to promote integrity and effectiveness in government than anything in recent memory. 

Although he outlined over 30 proposals, here I will focus on just one: making information accessible. It is the key to Trudeau’s views on transparency; and without a serious commitment to transparency, his talk of open government is empty.

Simply put, transparency is the ability to see what goes on within the walls of government; to be able to track how processes unfold and how and why decisions are made. Without transparency, we can never hold government to account. Accountability assumes that we know or can know what a minister has done.

Now Trudeau’s proposal may look modest in this regard—it is only a couple of sentences—but it moves the yardsticks on transparency a very long way. His plan is to “amend the Access to Information Act so that all government data and information is made open by default in machine-readable, digital formats.”

The key phrase here is “open by default.” It is borrowed from the Open Government movement, where it is used to contrast two opposing ways of looking at data and information. In the status quo view, governments feel they “own” the data and information they collect. It is therefore a government’s right to say whether a piece of information will be released. Clearly, this is Stephen Harper’s view.

Open by Default turns this upside down—or perhaps right-side up. It says that government information and data are the property of citizens and that they should be available to the public by default. In other words, anytime information is withheld, the onus is on government to provide a justification.

Trudeau then goes on to propose that the Act be expanded to include ministers’ offices and the PMO, which currently it does not. This is a powerful move. As any Ottawa journalists will see, combining access to political offices with open by default (and then using digital technology to drive it) catapults us into a political world where confidential information of all kinds is automatically posted online. This is a long way from the Ottawa I’m used to.

One way to appreciate the boldness of what Trudeau is proposing here is to consider the recent work of Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, who has been trying in vain to convince the Harper government to move toward such a model for years.

Like Trudeau, Legault believes that making citizens file an access request to get the information they need to hold government to account is neither appropriate nor necessary. In the digital era, she argues, information should be released online proactively. Or, as Trudeau says, it should be open by default. So far, the government has barely budged.

Legault’s years as the federal Information Commissioner have convinced her that this is not just bureaucratic inertia. It is deliberate. Whatever the reasoning, the government quietly but firmly opposes stronger access laws. As for the existing Act, the government keeps finding new ways around it. As Legault reports, “The Act is applied to encourage a culture of delay…deny disclosure [and act] as a shield against transparency.”

Of course, the government will deny that it is dragging its feet and insist that high levels of “confidentiality” are necessary to get things done, but whatever the benefits, the costs are becoming intolerable. As Trudeau notes, Canadians are losing faith in their democracy; and he is right to link this to issues around openness and transparency. The signs are hard to miss.

The government has insulated itself from the public with a thick and expanding layer of communications experts, who effectively obscure rather than enhance, transparency. Information on the government’s plans, priorities, policies and performance is tightly controlled and only sparingly released. In the House of Commons, government backbenchers are closely monitored by the PMO and their comments are highly scripted.

Trudeau’s proposal on information is a critical step toward reversing Ottawa’s growing culture of secrecy and control. If the basic idea seems pedestrian or unassuming, it is deceptively so. In a recent report, Legault sets out 85 recommendations to reform the Act. They are the result of years of highly specialized work. Taken together they provide a comprehensive inventory of the measures needed to achieve open by default.

This is not to say Trudeau’s view is overly simple or naïve. Rather, it means that a plan to realize it has already been laid and he is free to draw on it as he moves ahead. There is a long way to go. Indeed, the Commissioner argues that, while this kind of reform may begin with the Act, it cannot end there.

She believes that open by default will eventually have to be extended to all government systems, policy instruments, directives, and staff training. I agree. Once Canadians have seen this kind of transparency under the Act, they will demand to see it across government.

With this speech Trudeau has begun the journey. He has intentionally linked his political fortunes to the emerging Open Government movement; and to its mission to enhance transparency, accountability and democratic participation through openness.

The movement needs political leaders and his speech is a bold and impressive contribution to promoting openness and transparency. It raises the bar for everyone. And that is a good thing. Openness is the way to rebuild public trust in government.

Now let’s hear from the others.

 

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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