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No public accountability as governments manage the message

Openness and access to information are cornerstones of a democratic society. Or they should be, at least. Increasingly, however, governments of all stripes and levels appear intent on doing just the opposite.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, for instance, talked a good game in the 2015 campaign, but has failed to deliver on promises of openness.

Canada in fact ranks 52nd in a global list of 128 countries assessed under the RTI (right to information) rating, a project by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) and fellow non-governmental organization Access Info Europe. The rating system, which gave Canada a score of 93 points out of a possible 150, looks at the strength of legal frameworks for access to information.

Canada lags behind countries such as Sweden (101 points) and Finland (105), but perhaps more surprisingly the likes of Afghanistan (139), Mexico (136) and India (127). The RTI Ratings are in keeping with other studies showing the Canadian public’s right to know is slowly eroding, even in comparison to what wouldn’t be called progressive parts of the world.

Governments at all levels in this country routinely refuse, delay and redact information of importance to the functioning of informed democracy, putting its own interests ahead of the public good. The federal government, in particular, has given lie to its pledge of openness and transparency, as annual freedom of information (FOI) audits have revealed.

Far too often governments pay little more than lip service to the issue. The right to know – an actual right – is disregarded.

“Governments are required to be open with people, that’s a clear implication of the guarantee of freedom of expression under international law, which protects the right to seek, receive and impart information,” says Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy. “It’s not just about speech. It’s also about seeking and receiving [information] – there’s solid international jurisprudence to think that includes a way to get information from government and also an obligation on government to disclose information not just pursuant to a request, but just to be open with people.

“We put them in power, and they’re answerable to us.”

That accountability aspect is lost on politicians and bureaucrats. There is no real accountability for decisions and policies, no matter how poor or damaging. Likewise, there’s a growing trend to attempt to manage the message, with officials unwilling to answer questions about policies and spending decisions: they’re keen to announce the spreading around of tax dollars, but opposed to explaining the rationale, the need or the consequences. When things go wrong, as is often the case, they go silent.

That’s clear from local issues such as the school board refusing to make anyone available to explain the removal of washroom doors and the region dodging questions about spending on the likes of lane bollards or transit.

With each lack of response, they move away from public service and accountability to those paying the bills.

Social media is not helpful in that regard, as it allows for policy by Tweet while giving the illusion of “communication.”

We already know that social media is a hotbed of misinformation and uninformed views. That politicians and bureaucrats take to it with one-sided messages doesn’t elevate its status.

“The reason disinformation and misinformation are so prevalent today is that it sells better,” says Mendel. “False news has a significant cognitive advantage over the truth. So it circulates much more rapidly and gets more likes or clicks or whatever you want to call it on social media.”

Beyond the propaganda model, sticking with one-way statements and avoiding questions is simply a way for officials to dodge embarrassment over poor decisions and suspect actions.

“I suppose in some cases there’s embezzlement or fraud or corruption or something. But a lot more of the time, I suppose there’s just, you know, sort of stupidity and incompetence. They don’t want to acknowledge that either,” he says.

Mendel does note that today’s negative political climate means officials are likely to be slammed for everything they do or don’t do, making them understandably gun shy. That doesn’t excuse a lack of transparency, but it is human nature.

“Now, linked to the digital communications environment, we have become so overwhelming negative about everything, and I think it makes it a little bit more difficult for governments to be honest because they don’t get credit for being honest, even when they’ve done well, and they certainly don’t get credit for being honest where they haven’t done well.”

That kind of hyper-partisanship, so prevalent in the U.S., makes every government action subject to negative criticism, deserved or not. There’s an understandable urge to stay under the radar, but openness is essential.

Journalists spend much of their time scrutinizing government records and attending meetings where background material is essential to following the thread of discussions. The absence of such documents muddies the process. As with closed meeting, reporters suspect the worst when decisions are made away from public view.

By and large, journalists everywhere struggle with political infrastructures seemingly dedicated to keeping the public in the dark. Openness is an anathema to many in the political ranks, elected officials and administrators alike, who seek to keep information to themselves. This sad reality has spawned organized efforts by public groups, including journalists, to make government more transparent – see, for instance, Democracy Watch.

Of course, such obfuscation is more clearly evident in larger governments (and, in keeping with current trends, larger businesses whose executives have a vested interest in hiding the truth). This is not to say that local governments are bastions of openness. Given their size and relatively lighter agendas, however, there are fewer opportunities to impose blackouts on the press and, by extension, their readers.

Transparency is crucial to ensuring that elected representatives are politically accountable, an ideal check on power. Access to information is the cornerstone of democratic development.

Even when there is nothing to hide – the refusal to divulge information is not always associated with a cover-up – public officials tend to be stingy with the facts. This may be a proclivity for erring on the side of caution; newspapers would have governments lean toward the other, more open side. The longer the game of avoidance goes on, the more likely the rationale becomes that officials are hiding because they can’t defend the indefensible.

Indefensible policies and spending should never see the light of day. When they do – and they have – they should be terminated immediately. The public is unlikely to see that kind of accountability, however.

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