Hidden agenda in Liberal government’s new transparency policy

Hidden agenda in Liberal government’s new transparency policy

Let me roll out a business proposition for you.

First, it requires that you develop a sophisticated understanding of how governments and institutions are organized – their responsibilities and activities, their functions and public roles and the records they produce.

A little nerdy and demanding, but bear with me.

Second, it involves an investment of your time for precious little return – hours and hours of examining and divining the pathology of public policy to determine if there might be a trail of breadcrumbs that would reward your patient search.

So, that calls for persistence and selflessness. Still with me?

Third, beyond the cerebral work itself, the business needs you to have sufficient emotional intelligence to accept routine and regular rejection and failure – that all of this effort falls flat, drills a dry well, evinces nothing for your time and effort on many occasions, so that when your effort yields anything it feels like being handed a winning lottery ticket.

But now that you’re truly hooked and can’t possibly imagine pursuing any life unlike it, let me throw a new wrinkle into this proposition.

Let’s say that after you’ve done your work, anyone else – competitor, rival, mischievous party simply seeking to spoil your spadework and ruin your day – can piggyback on your initiative, free of charge, and gain the same reward.

Heck, we’ll even tell them about your proposal the minute you’re done proposing it.

I mean, what’s to resist?

Last week the province announced two things on the same day. Usually when that happens, there is reason to be suspicious. And there they were: one, a good-news story on distracted driving fines that served to occupy media appetite, and the other, a not-so-good-news story on freedom of information concealed by a coat of sugar.

Too clever by half, the government positioned the latter announcement as an initiative in transparency. Which is true: it is a transparent effort to make people stop asking for information.

Now, the BC Liberals are not alone as a government in deeming a takeaway as a gift. But this move was – to quote philosopher Don Cherry – beauty.

The new directives on disclosing information emphasized how the public would see the daily calendars and relative real-time expenses of the provincial ministers and their staff.

But – and here’s where we go back to that business proposition – as it gave with one hand, it stabbed with another, a shiv with a smile.

Under the new policy, researchers, special interest groups, the political opposition and (full disclosure: us) journalists will find that anything they seek will be publicly known, right as it’s requested and long before it’s disclosed.

In essence, the proprietary raw material is suddenly in some sort of sharing circle. In business terms, it is an act of aggression on a competitive practice.

In sheer political terms, it sticks it to us – and for that matter, to you, because it will surely dissuade us from acting on your behalf.

Just when you think there might be a slivered ray of light piercing the cloud of government policy to provide access to the information we have paid for and deserve, along comes this dunderhead of an idea to thwart any initiative.

The province’s privacy commissioner properly pronounced herself perturbed. Elizabeth Denham, soon fleeing Victoria for the United Kingdom, where she might be better appreciated, generously referred to the new publicness of the requests as “unintended consequences” of generally positive directives.

If only they were.

This fits a pattern all too familiar in this and other governments: say you’re transparent fast and often enough and some believe you. We see it here in Vancouver, we’ve seen it a long time in Ottawa, so why not in Victoria, too?

Non-disclosure is non-partisan and governments of all stripes never change their stripes as they arrive from opposition.

They revert to form to reinforce the fortress to shield information. Which is why hearing the NDP pledge to be better is to laugh. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.