At some point, there is such a thing as too much transparency

Posted on March 3, 2016 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
Mar 1, 2016.   Christopher Alcantara, National Post

Over the last several years, accountability and transparency issues have been at the forefront of discussions and news coverage of Canadian politics. The usual targets have been politicians, such as former MP Bev Oda, former Alberta premier Alison Redford, and senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin. Other popular targets include the “sunshine list” of public-sector employees at all levels of government, such as professors, teachers, and police officers, among others.

The usual narrative in these stories is how we need more accountability and transparency in our governments. In practice, this means the government should post more public information about these politicians and employees, such as salaries, benefits, and expenses, and include as much detail as possible about their office, travel and technology expenditures.

On the one hand, these demands make a lot of sense. Accountability and transparency are the bedrocks of Canadian democracy and so it is important that we develop effective systems for monitoring how politicians and public-sector employees are paid and how they spend public funds.

On the other hand, at some point, there is such a thing as too much accountability and transparency.

If we follow the logic that all public servants should have their expenses and salaries made public to curb the misuse and encourage the effective use of public funds, then a similar logic can and should be applied to Canadians.

To curb water use and encourage conservation, municipal governments could publish the amount of water used by every household in their jurisdictions

For instance, the federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments of Canada could publish detailed information on how individuals, businesses, and organizations interact with their programs and services. To improve health-care spending and reduce wait times, provincial governments could publish how often individuals or households visit a medical facility each year and the reasons for their visit. The federal government could publish the names and/or street addresses of people on social assistance and the amount of support they receive each year from the government. To curb water use and encourage conservation, municipal governments could publish the amount of water used by every household in their jurisdictions.

Most Canadians, of course, would not accept these reporting practices, even though the logic behind them is similar to the logic used to defend the publication of highly detailed reports on politicians and public servants.

There is no question that mechanisms that promote accountability and transparency are good things for democracy but there has to be a logical connection between the goals and tools of a particular public policy.

In economics, scholars sometimes analyze these situations by looking at the “opportunity costs” involved. In other words, when confronted with a set of choices, the right choice depends on the relative costs and benefits incurred compared to a different set of choices.

When it comes to demands for greater detail about the salaries and expenditures of politicians and public servants, the amount and time and effort involved would be best spent elsewhere, given the limited benefits that would accrue from such policies.

National Post

Christopher Alcantara is associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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