The Trudeau government was swept into office, in part, by promising to offer a fairer and more open government than its predecessor. The Liberal party strategists knew that the public had grown weary of the Harper government’s penchant for secrecy in a wide range of policy areas and was looking for a renewed commitment to openness. Over the course of the almost ten-year Conservative government, the public found fewer opportunities to interact with their government and, by the end, public consultation was reduced to filling out online surveys within short time frames without the benefit of background materials or any indication of the government’s intentions.
As result, during the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals championed open and transparent government and made it one of the pillars of their policy platform. They promised significant changes in access to information, giving elected officials an opportunity to better represent their constituents and to hold the government to account. Moreover, they expressed an interest in changing the way in which Parliament operates by promising to implement an array of reforms including changing the method of appointment to the Senate and allowing more free votes in the House of Commons.
As well, they made a series of significant promises to offer more open and fair elections by, inter alia, addressing the challenges of the first past the post electoral system, strengthening Elections Canada and preparing youth to vote. In an effort to shoehorn more ‘good things’ into the Open Government basket, Liberals also promised to use more evidenced-based policy making by unmuzzling scientists, bringing back the long form census and using data for decision making. Finally, they also made a commitment to overhaul CRA practices, save home mail delivery, make more diverse appointments, and provide more online government services.
Since the 2015 election the prime minister has been true to his word by kick-starting a number of specific initiatives that are directed to meeting his election commitments.
More importantly, he has also wisely recognized that in order to truly achieve a 21st century Canadian version of Open Government, his government, with more than 250,000 employees, must develop a new ethos and culture about openness – moving beyond the specificity of the dozens of individual commitments that were in the party platform.
To achieve this the Prime Minister has taken two important steps to provide ongoing continuity. First, at the time of the swearing in of his government, the Prime Minister released an updated version of ‘Open and Accountable Government’ that sets out the ‘core principles regarding the, individual and collective role and responsibilities of Ministers, their staff and the public servants that work with them. The principles also cover standards of conduct including conflicts of interest, ethical and policy activities, access to information, fundraising activities, dealing with lobbyists, appointments and the role of central agencies.
More recently, on August 22, 2016, he handed Carla Qualtrough additional Cabinet responsibilities by appointing her Chair of the new 13-member Cabinet Committee on Open Transparent Government and Parliament with a mandate to ‘consider issues concerning reform of democratic institutions and processes, and improving government transparency and openness.’
Looking collectively at the campaign promises and the administrative steps taken to concretize the commitment to open government sets the stage for a breakthrough in this important policy area. However, the recent furor associated with the recent ‘pay for access’ fund raising activities of the Liberal Party is a reminder that there is no margin for error when it comes to apparent or real ethical issues in the political arena. The government has set a high standard against which they will be judged at the next election and given the long list of commitments to Open Government, there is increasing pressure on the Cabinet Committee to go beyond the aspirational to a real change in administrative behaviour.
The government has claimed that the goal of open government is to restore flagging ‘trust in our democracy,’ achieve better program outcomes, raise compliance levels, and foster innovation and new economic activity. It has been more explicit than any other about its expectations for itself, where in a recent OECD document, it promised to ‘develop a governing culture where the public has the right to access the documents and proceedings of government that allow for greater openness, accountability and engagement’.
The government has set a high bar for itself and has initiated many worthwhile activities, but the recent ‘cash for access’ controversy reveals the public’s ongoing suspicions about the government’s intentions and sincerity in following through with real cultural change among elected officials and public servants.
The highly acclaimed TV comedy series Yes, Minister starts it first season with an episode entitled ‘Open Government,’ where the neophyte minister, Jim Hacker, learns quickly about the perils of promising more open government and laughably retreats in the face of resistance from many quarters. The episode demonstrates that it is difficult to change behaviour when it is so entrenched in practice. Good intentions can get you elected, but they do not necessarily result in concrete and lasting change. This is something the government should keep in mind as it approaches the second half of its mandate.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School
of Public and International Affairs at the University of
Ottawa, Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria,
and Research Advisor to the Public-Sector Practice of