The phrase “openness and transparency” has become a very popular one in election platforms, including that of the Conservative party during the recent provincial election. All the parties plan to be open and transparent with the citizens. It’s the democratic thing to do.
Of course, bureaucracies, by their very nature, tend to be secretive. How could they not be, with an abundance of information officers, whose chief function seems to be to prevent anyone from learning anything about what’s happening in a specific department concerning a specific subject?
Communications New Brunswick has gone from nine people some 20 years ago, to 101 people according to their website. All those people must be trying to do something to justify their existences.
If you’re working to a deadline, the information officer will take your question, and go off into the organizations to get a reply, since the officer never seems to know anything about what is going on. When they get back with an answer, there are often follow up questions that occur to you only after you’ve heard the answer. The officer then promises to get back with the answers to these questions. And so it goes.
The first thing that Barack Obama did when he took over being president of the United States was to issue a Memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government,” which was to open up the functioning of the U.S. government. The memo went out to all Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies.
There are a host of non-profits and foundations that promote openness in government. As examples, foundations in the U.S. that are very active include the Sunlight, Ford, and Carnegie Foundations.
In Canada, a non-profit, VisibleGovernment.ca, promotes online tools for government transparency. Proposals are made on this website, such as the next Prime Minister should issue a high level statement that he will oversee the “most, open, honest and accountable Canadian Government ever.” Perhaps I’m a bit cynical, but there is a large gap between these kinds of statements and the reality of how governments really operate.
Two examples of operations that fall well short of such idealistic statements spring immediately to mind. AIMS (Atlantic Institute of Market Studies) is based in Halifax, and it has been very busy with a number of reports on education and health care, among others. Its findings have been well researched, and often a bit embarrassing for organizations who end up with rankings near the bottom of these comparative studies.
AIMS does a provincial report card on schools in the provinces. Recently, it completed this report card on schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It does these reports in order to give some insight for parents on how well schools are doing, always acknowledging that this report is only a partial picture. Such studies do, however, provide a benchmark.
Saskatchewan was willing to release data on school performance, which included average marks for schools. Manitoba, however, would only release a small amount of information. Those opposed to giving information included the province itself, and the teachers’ union.
Then, there’s the practice of publishing annually a listing of salaries above a certain level for those in the N.B. public service. Traditionally, such a list was issued each year in the “blue book.” A few years ago, however, this practice was severely curtailed. A nominal list was still provided but the actual salaries were hidden by giving a range of possible salaries depending on classification.
Let me recommend, once again, that the New Brunswick government start making the public sector more open and accountable to taxpayers. Pass equivalent legislation to Ontario’s Public Sector Disclosure Act (1996), which requires all organizations that receive public funding from the province to disclose annually the names, positions, salaries and total taxable benefits of employees paid $100,000 or more in a calendar year.
This act would list all such employees in the wider public service, including the public service (Part 1), schools (Part 2) and health institutions (Part 3), corporations, universities, and any other employers who receive a significant level of funding from the province.
The list for Ontario is available on the Ministry of Finance website. This would be a good beginning in informing the taxpayers of this province as to the extent and cost of the workforce that they are employing.
Jo-Ann Fellows is a writer living in Fredericton. Her columns on seniors’ concerns and on public policy issues appear twice a month.