UNIT 06: OPEN GOVERNMENT: TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
After completing this unit, you should be able to:
• explain the importance of accountability in preserving honest government
• assess the role of the press in making government as open as possible
• analyze the deficiencies in the freedom of information regimes in Canada and the
All politicians, when they are in opposition, embrace the principle of Open Government.
Let the light shine in, they proclaim. Let the people see what their representatives are
doing. Let the taxpayers know how their money is really being spent, every penny of it.
Once the same politicians form a government, however, they invariably have second
thoughts. They realize that the principle of openness, which seemed so attractive and
popular when they were in opposition, has a huge potential for embarrassment when they
are in government and have matters they want to keep secret.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a case in point. When he was the Opposition Leader,
he was an enthusiastic supporter of openness and transparency. Here is what he said in
2005, the year before he took power: “Information is the lifeblood of a democracy.
Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs,
citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or
corrupt governance can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.” Now, however, his critics
accuse him of running the most closed, controlled and secrecy-obsessed government of
the past half-century.
Why are openness and transparency important? How can we hold our governors
accountable if we do not know what they are doing?
As we learned last week, ethics codes and commissioners are a valuable, but incomplete,
approach to the problem of corruption in public life. Rules are too easily broken or
circumvented. Enforcement is too often lackadaisical. In the final analysis, the only real
protection against corrupt behaviour is the searchlight of publicity. Politicians and
bureaucrats are fall less likely to break the law or bend the rules if they know that their
transgressions will be exposed to the country at large. Transparency is the key to
A simple test that some leaders put it to their caucus supporters goes like this: “Would
you want see this published on the front page of The Globe and Mail in the morning? If
you wouldn’t, don’t do it.” It is often said that democracy’s best protection is an informed citizenry. When it comes
to corruption, the disclosure of members’ and ministers’ financial holdings (as discussed
in Unit 05), is one element of the answer. Parliament itself is another element.
Parliamentary debate and scrutiny can go a long way toward keeping politicians,
especially cabinet ministers, honest.
A third element is the news media. Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitutions
of many countries, including Canada and the United States – in the First Amendment to
U.S. Constitution and in Article 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Freedom of the press is a wonderful principle. Its effectiveness, however, depends on the
media’s ability to gain access to information about government policies, decisions and
activities. A free press is unable to fulfill its function if the government is able to operate
behind a wall of secrecy.
Achieving genuinely open government is not as simple as it might seem. One obstacle is
psychological. Information is a form of power. It is power in the hands of those who hold
it, use it and dole it out. In some cases, these are bureaucrats who fear sharing
information with the public will both reduce their influence and render their work much
more difficult. It is easier for officials to make and implement decisions in private –
without the press, public or even parliamentarians peering over their shoulders. In other
cases, it is politicians, especially cabinet ministers, who prefer to operate in secret. They
often fear the political embarrassment that publicity may bring.
A second obstacle is practical – a shortage of effective tools to force public servants and
politicians to provide the access to information that an informed citizenry needs. It has
been a long struggle to develop the tools to meet those needs.
The starting point is to establish a principle, which can be stated in these terms:
Governments do not “own” information. Governments gather information on behalf
of the public and at the public’s expense. All information held by governments
should, therefore, be available to the public, unless there is a compelling reason to
keep it secret.
No one would contend that this principle has been fully embraced or firmly established.
But there has been some progress, both in the United States and Canada. In 1966, the
U.S. Congress enacted the first Freedom of Information Act. It came over the strenuous
objections of President Lyndon Johnson who, mired in a dirty and unwinnable war in
Vietnam, had many secrets that he did not want to share with the American public. The
act was strengthened in 1974 following the Watergate scandal and cover-up that forced
Richard Nixon out of the White House. It became a popular tool for researchers, reporters
and many others. By 1991, the number of FOI requests reached 1.9 million annually.