Making “openness and accountability” more than buzzwords

There’s hardly a day goes by without our present government claiming to be open and accountable. Like a lot of words politicians repeat, the hope is that if they say them often enough, they will be accepted as truths not to be challenged.

I’ll be the first to admit that governing is not easy. Governments have to take into account a number of things that are political, social, economic and environmental, and they have to do all that simultaneously and through a variety of lenses that are short, medium and long term – and they must try and balance all those objectives. That’s very different from the private sector where objectives are usually much simpler and more clearly defined, and are generally short-term and based predominantly on economic goals.

Protecting and improving the well-being of all its citizens must be government’s main objective, not generating profits. In the market place where the private sector operates, willing buyers and sellers come together in a competitive environment and agree on a price and terms of sale. But governments provide services in a non-competitive environment: they are often the only ones delivering certain things – health care, schools, and roads for example – all paid for with our tax dollars. And because of this they must have strong accountability and transparency to make sure that those services are being delivered effectively, fairly and efficiently: that citizens are getting good value for their tax dollars and that the money is going where it should.

Good governance means acting in the broad public interest at all times, and there are a couple of fundamental things that need to be present if Islanders are to enjoy good governance – politicians that act with integrity, a strong commitment to ethics and respect for the rule of law; and secondly, true openness and accountability.

On PEI, we are in the middle of a process to review our Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP) – the legislative bedrock of openness and transparency. There are a few central values in good freedom of information legislation: that it be guided by the principle of maximum disclosure; that key government information be readily and freely available; that exceptions be clearly and narrowly defined; and that requests for information be handled fairly and quickly.

In the last legislative sitting, I asked on 3 separate occasions for a copy of a previous internal FOIPP review which was done a few years ago, but never made public. Ultimately our office had to file a freedom of information request to get a copy. Just let the irony of that sink in for a minute.

Our office has just completed our contribution to the current review process – a 21 page document entitled “Leapfrogging Ahead of the Pack: Achieving Leadership in Transparency and Accountability”, which presses for PEI to become a leader in access to information. Here’s an excerpt from the submission: “(A)s we look for ways to improve and strengthen policy and legislation, we must also address the culture within which those laws and policies apply. It will take strong leadership and a long-term commitment to ensure that openness and accountability become enshrined within government culture.  We hope our submission will help inform that change in culture.”

Who knows how far this government is willing to go in moving towards introducing good, world-class legislation, but unfortunately even the strongest laws on the planet won’t make a difference if we continue to operate in our current culture of secrecy.