Government openness can’t wait for access to information law
Information and privacy commissioner prods municipalities, but councils can act immediately
Raising a hand for openness in government isn’t enough.
Elected officials and government workers need to embrace it. To live it. To voluntarily make it part of how they do business.
Nunavut’s information and privacy commissioner, Graham Steele, called on Iqaluit city council Tuesday to be the territory’s first municipality to ask to be added to Nunavut’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. That law requires Government of Nunavut departments to release written records when people ask for them. But it doesn’t apply to municipalities. Yet.
“Maybe Iqaluit could set the standard,” Steele said during a presentation to council. “If anyone can do it, it is Iqaluit and maybe Iqaluit can put their hand up first and say, ‘We’re ready.’”
Steele, who was named to the post earlier this year, wants councils to ask the GN to bring their municipality under the umbrella of the law.
Access to information laws have applied at the municipal level in all 10 provinces for about 40 years. But not in the territories.
Steele’s using the carrot to persuade municipalities to get on board, calling it “fundamentally the right thing to do.”
But politicians and bureaucrats everywhere are always worried about the stick — the prospect of citizens using access laws to find out about their embarrassing mistakes and punish them.
Government openness is vital to fixing the social and economic problems Nunavummiut face, including housing, food shortages, poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse and racism.
Those problems are best addressed when people have informed conversations about them. But they can only do that when they’re equipped with the facts.
Iqaluit councillors unanimously voted to work with the GN on bringing Iqaluit under the access to information act by January 2023. Coun. Kyle Sheppard said he would “fully support” the law taking effect in Iqaluit while Coun. Sheila Flaherty called the access law “a vehicle to achieve and maintain transparency.”
But from the time any municipality raises its hand, it might take two years for it to come under the access law.
In the meantime, there’s an effective and cheap way to embrace the spirit of openness the law prescribes.
Never mind the law. Start now. Any municipality can simply make information available whenever people ask for it. A council can instruct its staff to talk the public — including the media — and give straightforward answers to questions they ask.
There’s so much more any government can do simply by making openness part of its culture.
Unresponsive bureaucrats, muzzled government experts and communications departments that don’t truly communicate are all part of a problem.
A good example is how the City of Iqaluit did not answer Nunatsiaq News’ questions about its rental of a hydrocarbon monitoring system in response to the month-long water emergency.
It’s hard for councillors to say they “fully support” openness as a “vehicle for transparency” when the city won’t answer a reporter’s simple question — “how much did that cost?”
If a municipality wants to commit to openness, it can start right away by baking it into its culture.
It sounds great that Iqaluit councillors threw their “full support” behind having the access to information law apply to them. But they don’t have to wait. There’s plenty they can do to embrace openness immediately.