Tag Archives: accountability

Parliament, Accountability and you

Yesterday was not a good day for accountability.

Yes, the speaker has spoken. It turns out that the government is accountable to parliament. Everyone seems to be happy. Everyone that is, except me.

While some are understandably happy about the decision the fact is, this is lowest common denominator democracy. Presently the executive – one that ran on the notion of accountability – believes it is accountable to no one. Indeed, it is not even embarrassed to openly argue the case. The good news is that, thankfully, the Speaker has intervened and signaled that, in fact, the government is accountable to at least one group of people, parliamentarians. On the surface, it is more than a little embarrassing to all Canadians that, to avoid accountability, the present government would attempt to break centuries of parliamentary tradition and violate the very rules the sustain our democracy. Again, yesterday is not a high water mark, it is a low water mark for all of us.

But there is something still more disturbing in yesterday’s events. If this government is unwilling to be accountable to elected officials who have the power of tradition and rule of law… How responsive will they be any one else?

And here in lies the bad news. While our government may yet be held accountable to parliament, there is group of people the government has demonstrated it isn’t accountable to. And that is you.

Let’s assume that, like me, you have no parliamentary privilege. No legal team on your side. No access to the speaker of the house to arbitrate your request. What is the likelihood your request for government information – even something not-secret – will be responded to in a timely manner? How accountable do you think your government will be to you?

Sadly, we know the answer. And it is not good. Indeed, what is playing out in the house is a metaphor for what has happened across much of the Canadian government. With each government it becomes harder and harder to know how decisions were made, what has happened, or even the results of a government activity. That is unless the government decides it wants you to know.

In fact, it is not out of the ordinary for citizens to wait months to get information they requested. Of course, this means that by the time they get the information they requested the discussion has moved on or new more relevant information needs to be requested. In short, journalists, academics, businesses and ordinary Canadians remains stuck forever in the dark, their government out of reach, and unwilling to be accountable to the very people who elect them.

Indeed the only thing that is extraordinary about what is happening in parliament is that it is a profoundly ordinary experience for ordinary Canadian who might ask a question of their government. As the Information Commissioner noted in her report to parliament “Seventeen of the 24 institutions completed their requests in 60 days or more.” (The law requires a response within 30 days). And that was if they decided to fulfill the request at all. So far parliament has had to wait 4 months, if the government decides it will hand over the documents at all. And of course, the government may next claim it doesn’t know where the documents are – since apparently they are using a highly sophisticated filing system to manage the war effort.

So, members of parliament, what you are experiencing is what is actually pretty normal for the rest of us. Which is, pretty depressing.

Withholding FOI requests: In the Private Sector, that's fraud

It was with enormous interest I read on the Globe’s website about a conservative Ministerial Aide “unrealeasing” a document requested by The Canadian Press through an Access to Information request (The Access to Information Act ensures that citizens can request information about the government’s activities).

A federal cabinet minister’s aide killed the release of a sensitive report requested under freedom-of-information in a case eerily similar to a notorious incident in the sponsorship scandal.

What I find fascinating is the neither the minister (now at Natural Resources Canada) or the aide have been asked to resign.

Let’s be abundantly clear, if this were the private sector and a CEO was caught deliberately withholding material information from a shareholder… that would constitute either fraud and/or a violation of whichever provincial securities laws he/she was bound by. Moreover, such a crime that could carry with it a prison sentence.

And yet here, in the most cavalier manner, one of the most basic trusts that ensure accountability in our system is violated with almost no repercussions.

The story does have its dark humour (and a embarrassingly feeble attempt at an excuse):

Mr. Paradis’s current communications director said Mr. Togneri’s intervention was to suggest the Access to Information section offer fewer pages to the requester without charge rather than the entire 137 pages for a fee of $27.40, which had already been paid.

“He went through and thought that a huge section of a very big report wasn’t relevant and that you should be given the option of paying to get it or get the (smaller) chapter” without charge, Margaux Stastny said in an interview. “No one can overrule Access officers.”

The options were never provided to the requester, however. Instead, the department simply sent the censored report and refunded the fee.

Yes, I too am always comforted to know that my government is thinking of me and trying to save me a few pennies by ensuring I don’t see information they know I need not waste my time on.

I, of course, have another solution for how the photo copying money could be saved. What about emailing a digital copy of the report? Of course Access to Information requests (called ATIP or FOI for those in the US) are always handed out in paper, just to ensure you can’t do anything too useful with them… oh and to help ensure that they are late in delivering them.

So while, in this case, the Minister’s staff has committed an enormous gaffe – one that should have (and yet probably won’t) political implications, it is also a window into a broader problem:

FOI = broken.

I belong to a generation that gets information in .3ms (length of a google search) if you take 80 days to get my request to me (and edit it/censor it), you are a bug I will route around. This isn’t just the end of accountability in government, this is the end of the relevancy of government.

The Most Dangerous Website in Ottawa

What is the more dangerous website in Ottawa? Here’s a secret. It isn’t a x-rated site, or loaded with tips and tricks on how to make weapons or break the law. It isn’t – contrary to what some politician might feel – even a newswebsite.

No, the most dangerous website in Ottawa is much, much, more boring than that.

The most dangerous website is actually a small site run by the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform or FAIR (see you are yawning already).

But one simple page on the site, entitled Some Canadian Whistleblowers, is potentially the most damaging website in Ottawa. In one swoop the site is a devastating critique of a Conservative Government (and Liberal Government before it) that ran on accountability but that crushes those who seek to advocate for it, it is damning appraisal of a public service that is willing to turn on its own and even wreck the careers of public servants and citizens who try to prevent the defrauding of Canadian taxpayers or ensure the integrity of our government, and it is a cautionary tale to public servants who may be tempted – by their ethics and good judgment – to speak out when they see something is deeply wrong about how the country is being run.

Consider this, of the 29 Whistleblowers highlighted on the website:

  • one public works employee and a group of five RCMP employees who spoke out together have the appearances of a happy ending. (The RCMP employees were publicly commended by a parliamentary committee and the public works official ran for office).
  • 7 were attacked by the public service but ultimately have managed to keep their jobs but their careers have been negatively impacted.
  • 15 more found themselves turfed out of their jobs, often by the very authorities that should have protected them.
  • The final person – Richard Colvin – still has his job, but the Conservative Government has effectively muzzled him by refusing to pay his legal fees (as he is entitled).

One might suspect that these stories have political angles to them, like that of Dr. John O’Connor, an Alberta doctor, who work uncovered unusually high rates of cancers among the residents of Fort Chipewyan, in the Athabasca oil patch. As the site details:

His findings contributed to concerns that oil extraction operations may be contaminating the environment with carcinogenic chemicals.

In what was perceived as an attempt to muzzle him, Health Canada doctors lodged four complaints against O’Connor with his professional body – charges which could have resulted in the loss of his licence. Doctors were alarmed by this incident, since such reports from doctors in the field have been vital to the detection of new diseases such as AIDS. Consequently, in 2007 the Canadian Medical Association passed a resolution (#103) calling for whistleblower protection for doctors – apparently to protect them from Health Canada.

But these are actually more isolated incidents. The real lesson from the website is that your story doesn’t need to be political in nature at all – all you really need to do ruin your career is speak out. Indeed, from the stories on the FAIR website, it is easy to see that if you are a public servant and you note illegal or unethical activities to your supervisors you may seriously damage your career. Should those supervisors ignore you and you opt to go public with those allegations – your career will be literally or effectively over (regardless of whether or not those accusations end up being true).

This is why this is the most dangerous website in Ottawa. Politicians (particularly Conservative politicians) don’t want you to see it, the Public Service doesn’t want to have to explain it, and Canadian citizens and public servants don’t want to end up on it.

Is this the future of accountability in Ottawa?

Detailing the Vortex – Canada & Afghan Prisoners

Campbell Clark has a piece in the Globe today outlining in journalistic fashion how the machinery of the public service was disorganized and at odds with itself and thus, as a result, the truth and accountability become the first victim. I thought it was a good follow up for those who found my piece from yesterday on how Canada has entered a Bush-like vortex to be interesting.

Someone at the Globe thinks that this story has legs – which is good, since it is of paramount importance to Canadians. If a ministry as important as Foreign Affairs handling an issue as important as the war in Afghanistan can’t tell us where the buck stops then perhaps the model we presently have is broken.

I hope that this situation becomes a case study in Public Policy schools across the country. It is a classic example of the types of conflicts public servants regularly face: what to do when what a political master (or more senior public servant) wants to hear conflicts with all evidence and reality? And don’t think that Colvin was an isolated issue. Remember there were 21 other public servants in addition to Colvin who were subpoenaed by the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC) but did not testify. (As an aside: The MPCC – the committee that originally subpoenaed Richard Colvin and which the government tried to block from doing so – ultimately prompting MPs of the The House of Commons’ Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan to subpoena Colvin). Maybe they have nothing of interest to share. But suspect this is not the case – as if it were, why not just testify? Instead, I suspect they have stories that are similar to Colvin’s (or support his) but they fear for their careers too greatly. But for them all that testifying promises is the possibility of ending their careers and the risks of being forever marginalized by senior public servants who don’t want trouble with their political masters…

On that note, I’ll end by reposting an anonymous comment from yesterday’s Globe website that appeared under my article. Suspect there is another story here.

While it is to a far smaller degree on the marality scale, I can assure you all that this is a matter of routine in government/civil servant sectors. I work at CMHC and have been present at a meeting where we were directed as to the language we were to use in upcoming publications. The change was in direct conflict with our mandate to provide unbiased information to the public. When this concern was brought up and a request for written directions made, we were all told very directly that there would never be a written record of the meeting, or the directions.

As this policy remains in place, and we remain in violation of our own priniciples, the higher ups are having to scramble to cover themselves as dissatisfaction grows. The president recently had the director of our function `fall on his sword`over suggestions that it was her that had directed this change in policy.

We all await the next directive that allegedly doesn’t come from her via the PMO.