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The murky reality of transparency in government

If we want to stop making a mockery of the term “transparency,” then our institutions have to accept they will be made a mockery of at times.

Small price, but let’s face it, who wants to do even that? Who in power is regularly willing to confess mistakes? Who among our governmental institutions would willingly accept the consequences?

It is why the John Horgan government’s latest pledge to open our legislature to freedom of information law meets my well-earned skepticism. Even if I eventually see it, I may not believe it.

It is a truism that politics and power attract people who generally wish to serve the public but overwhelmingly wish their accountability to only be served in private. I can count on one hand those in public life I’ve met over four decades in journalism who view admission of error as a virtue or who consider vulnerability an attribute. They are in a high-stakes business of human blunders – we all err, that’s why we have erasers on pencils – and use their power to shield secrets we ought to know.

I’ve lived on the other side as a subject of these information laws, when I was the CBC ombudsman. I’ve been present for conversations in which public requests were dealt with adversarially to avert embarrassment.

Even the most comfortable government and most confident institution devotes immense effort to prevent information from coming to light. Typically they under-resource the units that deal with public requests and think little of over-resourcing their expenditures on the vanity press to promote their achievements.

The sad result for them and us is a distorted understanding of their difficult decision-making.

Their power is a fortress, accessible by a rickety drawbridge occasionally lowered, alligators snapping as you cross.

It is a self-dealing perversion that these rules of engagement with power are made by the powerful themselves. Laws to compel release are framed by those with a history of non-disclosure. Who thought that one up? And how can we trust politicians to change the culture of entitlement to a culture of enlightenment?

The defensiveness of institutions has only hardened in this mercenary social media age in which, it should be conceded, slip-ups turn into memes and viral career-ending vortexes. My theory is that it has much to do with the rarity of decent disclosure. The revelations at the B.C. legislature of the expense exploits of the clerk and sergeant-at-arms were a shock because they had always been cloaked. If there were frequent concessions, we would treat them with the proper proportionality, which is to acknowledge the obvious – that the complexity of public institutions will by the law of averages yield bad behaviour or rotten results at times.

Bit by bit, the situation worsens about our right to know. Last week one media outlet reported of an important meeting about a senior military officer’s conduct in which there were no notes taken, and I know these non-notated events to be common now. Long ago many reports had their copyrights vested with the contracted firms, which could claim a commercial confidence and prevent release. From the early days routine information produced by public institution lawyers were considered cloaked by solicitor-client privilege. So much is exempt from release, it is intimidating to try.

We are becoming accustomed, even accepting, when told there are “no records” when we know there either ought to be or are. Steadily and surely the institutions have secured their supremacy over information.

We cannot be surprised, then, when the lawmakers determine the legislature is not subject to its purview – that “the people’s house” is not actually a “public body.”

The unfortunate reality is that our craft and those who advocate the right to know have been ineffective at rallying public support. Even though we possess some power in distribution, we are our own worst promoters because we do not let you know what you don’t know.

But in this inept position, I can offer some advice if the premier so wishes to hear it: Turn the concept of freedom of information on its head, do as they do in the German city-state of Hamburg and make information routinely disclosed unless there are arguments against its release.

If you really believe you have a strong government, it will weather the initial public gale and earn an immense respect over time for fostering trust in those who elect you. It will sustain you, not clobber you.

If, though, you do nothing or just want to fiddle around the edges, well, we will keep coming at you. One day you will have your own wood splitter.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.


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