Government openness builds essential trust

Posted on November 5, 2013 in Governance Debates – opinion/commentary – When government isn’t sufficiently open, we begin to suspect that the true basis for policy decisions isn’t just being left unsaid, but hidden.
Nov 04 2013.   By: Hershell Ezrin and Chris MacDonald

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says he doesn’t want to talk about the Senate scandal because it is a distraction from bigger economic issues. We agree.

While the Senate imbroglio raises important questions of ethical leadership, there remains a much broader accountability problem in how business and governments work together, a problem that lies at the heart of fixing our productivity and other economic challenges. We continue to ignore it as Canadians at our long-term economic peril.

Business and government both face crises of trust today. The public worries about whether governments and their officials consistently pursue the common good, and whether they are capable of doing so effectively and efficiently. At the same time, the public worries about the private agendas of corporations. Both worries are amplified when business and government interact.

The public is skeptical about whether government can effectively regulate corporate behaviour and hostile to the idea of any attempt by business to influence public policy. Yet governments and businesses need to co-operate and share more of their respective understandings if we are to achieve quality outcomes in policies and/or programs.

These were among the themes explored at a conference on the Public Good hosted recently by the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program, at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

The problem starts with the lack of economic data points. When former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page spoke at our conference, he marvelled at the attention that was paid to his office’s projections and estimates. His hypothesis was that his numbers were influential precisely because the government wasn’t forthcoming with its own data points.

Transparency is important not just because the electorate has a right to know but precisely because it leads to better decisions by parliamentarians. It also helps Canadians understand the factual basis upon which decisions are grounded; when we can see those facts, there is less reason to mistrust and to worry that decisions are being made for the wrong reasons, or as the result of the wrong kinds of influences.

Of course, meaningful transparency is hard to achieve. No political party has truly embraced the concept of open and transparent communications, especially when in power, presumably because the political cost is judged as very high.

If the problem begins with a lack of transparency, it ends with failed policies such as abysmal procurement practices, from overpriced and underperforming fighter jets to cancelled helicopter contracts and more.

When government isn’t sufficiently open, Canadians naturally begin to suspect that the true basis for policy decisions isn’t just being left unsaid, but actually hidden. They worry that the hidden reasons have to do with political advantage, or the influence of lobbyists, working either for the advantage of one industry player over another, or for government support of an entire sector.

The worry about lobbyists is that their efforts to “educate” government (that’s how they put it) will amount to a lot more than that, because civil servants themselves won’t have the data and the analytic capabilities to be equals in the discussion. The standard solution is to hobble lobbyists.

Better would be to build or rebuild capacity in government — financial and analytic capacity, policy capacity and so on — so that officials can meet lobbyists as equals and make use of them for valuable insight, rather than being used by lobbyists in pursuit of their own ends.

The first step is to reverse cuts made to policy analysis capacity in the federal public service. Such cuts have put the quality of decision-making at risk and raised the spectre of analysis being provided instead by those whose aim is something other than the public good.

Second, we need to empower sitting members of parliament to take more independent positions (which they can only do with more data points) and re-engage in the development of policies as they did in the parliamentary committees of a generation ago.

Third, the enlarged freedom on the part of parliamentarians must be part of a broader revitalization of social and political debate in the public sphere.

Government has a significant role to play in encouraging broad debate rather than attempting to stifle it by burying changes in omnibus bills and limiting discussion in the name of efficiency. The net result of these changes should be a greater public understanding of the source and justification of public policy, and a greater willingness to re-engage in the political process, and to validate it.

Now there’s a topic for the chamber of sober second thought to promote.

Hershell Ezrin is Former Principal Secretary to the Premier of Ontario and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. Chris MacDonald is Professor and Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program, also at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

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