A New (Old) Wave of Transparency?

We are seeing what appears to be a new wave of transparency in Canada. As Professor Mary Francoli recently said upon the release of her latest progress report on the government’s open government action plan, we are at an “interesting crossroads when it comes to open government.” The new government is committed to an accountable government that is “open by default.” At the same time, even within government there is a recognition that greater transparency will require a “cultural change” which will take some time and effort.

In the past, I have echoed these sentiments, particularly in my report on modernizing the Access to Information Act. The recommendations that I have provided are aimed at strengthening information management, ensuring timeliness, aligning the Act with open government initiatives, and providing a framework for proper and independent oversight – each of these elements would help foster a more open government. But as many ways as there are to promote transparency, there are just as many to avoid it. Even a modern and progressive Act will not be enough without a real cultural shift.

For me, the current transparency wave that we are seeing is not something entirely new – rather, it is an attempt to restore principles that were foundational to our democracy. This new wave is part of an older wave that began a long time ago. In fact, when the Act was first drafted in 1982, there was already a presumption of openness underlying it.

An excellent example of an inherent culture of openness is provided by public servants in Sweden, who this year are celebrating the 250th anniversary of their freedom of information legislation, which was the world’s first FOI law:

A transparent government is conducive for democracy. It is a pre-condition for political processes and it is something that we embrace and support very strongly in Sweden”. Per Sjögren, Ambassador for Sweden to Canada.

Here in Canada, Don Lenihan and I have written about the need for an integrated vision of open government. A culture of openness can prevail if the principle of open by default extends beyond data to include information and dialogue.

In speaking about a Canadian vision of Open Government, Don Lenihan says We defined Open Government in terms of three streams: Open Data, Open Dialogue and Open Information. […] We not only need to make data available or information, we need to be good at dialogue”

While a change of culture is needed within government, all Canadians have a role to play in ensuring that transformation occurs. This begins with holding public discourse to a higher standard – one that does not trivialize complex issues, but rather demands real accountability through open information and dialogue.

The new wave of transparency in government is a sure and positive sign, but those of us in the access community recognize that it needs to be part of a larger wave that goes back to the roots of our democracy. Both carry the same message: government must be accountable, and the only way to ensure accountability is to provide useful information in a timely manner to allow for meaningful democratic participation.

 

Share your thoughts about how to transform the culture of openness and transparency in the comments section below.

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