One important consequence of climate change is rising ocean levels. The increases are gradual, imperceptible to most and yet potentially catastrophic for coastal communities and residents. Every so often, however, a warning appears, a hurricane or tsunami, and attention and action soar before dissipating once again. The world’s challenge is thus to foster new governance regimes and to change behaviour before it is too late.
So it is with politics. Elected officials around the world know there is something out there called the Internet; Microsoft has embraced open source; the Prime Minister has even been on YouTube. And yet the rising tide of transparency is apparently imperceptible until it’s too late.
Nova Scotia’s politicians are the latest to have been caught in the storm. Secretive expense accounts and allowances, forensic audits, resignations and possible criminal breaches have all resulted. While the waters have calmed somewhat as of late, the poisonous mood that remains is a disaster for a young government looking to sell restraint and higher taxes in a bid to stem what will otherwise be runaway public debt.
To say the government misjudged things early on is an understatement. The Premier chose to be on vacation when the provincial Auditor General first went public with his findings. The Premier’s defensiveness with respect to his own expenses suggested a classic crisis-management response: hunker down and let the storm pass.
Fortunately, spurred by the realization that the whirlwind of scrutiny and outrage would not easily abate, the government responded. Its first act in the new session was an overhaul to legislative expenses, including a commission meeting in public with regular online reporting. The Leader of the Opposition went further. After apologizing on behalf of his party and its members, he called for the development of a values and ethics code to ensure that new rules are accompanied by a new culture.
The next gathering storm may be headed for Ottawa. A few MPs meticulously report their spending online, but others resist, claiming to be following the rules now in place (dictating that overall spending by each Parliamentarian is already made public). The House is debating whether to allow Sheila Fraser to audit the $533 million in annual spending: it’s tough to say no when you represent the public and your partisan organization is financed by taxpayer dollars.
Yet audits and inquiries alone cannot suffice, at least if democracy is to have any chance of adapting to an environment of relentless demands for openness. Our provincial and federal institutions may be built on the DNA of secrecy and information containment that defines Westminster governance, but changes all around point to a very different future.
Consider the increasingly visible public service. The CIO of a major federal department recently challenged government employees to leverage web 2.0 platforms to produce an open data strategy for Canada. The RCMP’s long overdue overhaul and the government’s reluctant release of information on Afghan detainees are both owed mainly to public servants speaking out. Similarly, during the recent H1N1 pandemic it was public health officials more than Cabinet Ministers who became the public sector’s most trusted face.
Outside government, voluntary organizations such as VisibleGovernment.ca are mobilizing awareness and energies and laying the foundations for a new age of more transparent governance. And the City of Edmonton is following the lead of many local jurisdictions elsewhere in creating an “Apps4Edmonton” contest designed to spur shared innovation through open data and web 2.0 capacities.
South of the border, the importance of executive leadership is on display: President Obama’s directive for openness is spurring experimentation with open data, cloud computing and new social media. Released in March, a new survey of American federal government CIOs, “Transparency and Transformation through Technology,” reflects this enthusiasm and the new mindset taking hold. Proactive transparency is viewed as the key to building trust.
By contrast, “democratic reform” federally in this country seems to comprise little more than the addition of 30 new seats to the House of Commons. Nonetheless, having brought in more independent oversight with the Federal Accountability Act, and embarrassed by recent missteps stemming from information leaks, the government now claims to be exploring ways in which information can be shared more readily.
Constrained by custom, law and political gamesmanship, there are limits to what any one party can accomplish on its own, especially when in power. In Nova Scotia, only a crisis managed to unify parties on the need for reform and even these changes amount to plugging a leaky boat rather than reinventing a new vessel for uncharted waters.
The rising tide of transparency brings both peril and promise. Political courage, creative and collaborative action, and meaningful and widespread public engagement are the keys to the latter.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).