In last week’s Throne Speech, Real Reform gets boiled down into Five Easy Pieces for a new era. At least one of them, Open and Transparent Government, is striking as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. To get the full message, we’ll need to read between the lines.
The section on openness starts with the observation that trust in public institutions has been “at times” compromised—which we can fairly take to mean “during the Harper era.”
This erosion of trust, the speech goes on to say, can be rebuilt by Parliament—if it operates with openness and transparency.
The rest of the section outlines the government’s plan to achieve this through electoral and senate reform, more free votes and stronger committees.
A casual reader might be surprised. After all, during the campaign the Liberals portrayed openness as a transformational idea. Now it seems to come down to a series of parliamentary reforms, which, while ambitious, are hardly novel.
To see what’s really going on, we need to stand back and look at the speech as a whole. When we do, openness looks quite different; and it is about much more than fixing Parliament. Consider, for example, what the speech has to say on environmental assessment:
…as part of efforts to restore public trust, the Government will introduce new environmental assessment processes. Public input will be sought and considered. Environmental impacts will be understood and minimized. Decisions will be informed by scientific evidence. And Indigenous peoples will be more fully engaged in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects.
This is about how public input, evidence and Aboriginal engagement will affect policymaking, not parliamentary reform. However, note that none of the key elements in the process are new. All three have always been part of environmental assessments—even under Harper. So what makes the Liberals’ approach different?
The answer is that now the process will be backed by a commitment to Open and Transparent Government. If the government is serious about this, we are in for a sea change in policymaking.
In the past, the real decision-making in such processes—priority-setting, trade-offs, the weighing of evidence, and so on—happened behind closed doors with very little public input or scrutiny. Once the final decision was made, it was announced and the government turned to defending it.
Open and Transparent Government presumably changes all that. If it means anything, it means that the impact of public input and evidence on decision-making must be adequately explained and justified. And this, in turn, means the policy process will be subject to a new kind of public scrutiny.
Openness thus is not just another big policy theme in the Throne Speech the way, say, diversity or sustainable development is. Nor is it narrowly focused on parliamentary reform. It underwrites the government’s entire agenda. Openness is the North Star that is supposed to guide the government through uncharted waters. But will it work?
To be frank, I don’t think the government has fully realized the implications of its commitment. To see why, we need to unpack the concept of openness a little further.
Openness has two distinct forms. The first is transparency. A government is open in this sense when its ministers are accessible, answer questions freely, and provide relevant information on government business. As the government rightly notes, transparency creates trust.
However, the government has also shown a confusing tendency to identify openness exclusively with transparency. This obscures the critical role that the second kind of openness plays in Open Government.
This second openness is not a willingness to be available, answer questions, or provide information, but a receptiveness to new ideas coming from others. Governments are open in this sense when they are genuinely willing to engage with other parliamentarians, other governments, stakeholders or citizens, and to consider their views.
This kind of openness provides the basis for discussion, debate and collaboration. The Harper Government’s style on the Fair Elections Act and C-51, the security bill, show just how important it is for democracy. Despite valid criticisms of these bills, the government turned a deaf ear to its opponents. They were rightly outraged. And now that government is gone.
The moral for the new government is clear: If it is committed to being transparent about how decisions are made, it must also be ready to collaborate with others in the policy process. Public scrutiny will quickly expose any attempt to control a process or the failure to execute it well.
Not that I’m suggesting the government needs to be sold on collaboration. On the contrary, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it a hallmark of his approach. One section of the Throne Speech repeats three times that the government will “work with the provinces…” to achieve its goals.
However, as things stand, the talk of collaboration often sounds more aspirational than systematic. It needs to be both. While collaboration is an aspirational term, it is also a technical one. Relying mainly on goodwill to make it work is a formula for failure.
Success over the long-term requires the right skills and expertise. It also requires policy processes that are explicitly designed to ensure that the process is transparent AND that decision-making is collaborative.
So my point is that transparency and collaboration are different but complementary aspects of openness. Both, I think, are essential to the Trudeau Government’s vision of democracy.
My suggestion is that the government reconsider some of the language in its Throne Speech to better reflect this; and that it focus adequate attention on building the capacity it needs to ensure these two aspects are properly aligned and working together.
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. He is currently the Government of Ontario’s principal advisor on its Open Dialogue Initiative. 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