Access to information
April 12, 2004
As a means of keeping track of the expenses of all federal ministers, their aides and top bureaucrats, the Canadian government is now requiring these persons to list their expenses on official departmental web sites. According to a Reuters report, federal institutions will be required to update their travel and hospitality expenses every three months. Head of the government's Treasury Board, Reg Alcock told Reuters "making this kind of information available online demonstrates our commitment to functioning in an ethical and transparent manner.''
Permitting this new level of public scrutiny through an increasingly important and accessible medium - the internet - was announced ironically after former Canadian privacy commissioner George Radwanski and an aide of his had rattled up US$390,000 on travel, meals and hotels in two years. Of course, the tax-payer was footing the bill and the disclosure forced Mr Radwanski to resign his position. The new rules also came into effect in the aftermath of a major scandal surrounding how C$100M in state funds went to firms with close ties to the ruling Liberals.
Already, the new requirement is providing useful information which will undoubtedly help the average citizen to shape opinions on public officials and in turn cajole more prudent spending decisions by the officials involved. While, for instance, Canada's foreign minister Bill Graham spent no more than C$64 on lunch for two between January 11 and February 26 this year, during this same period, a senior foreign affairs official laid out C$8,496.15 for a ticket to Geneva, Switzerland.
Broadening public access to information of this type has many positive features. First, people come to believe that they are really at the centre of government as they should be. Second, they are empowered to act as watchdogs over public spending. In the Canadian context, ministers who did not faithfully report expenses on a trip or restaurant could easily be caught out by any number of persons who might know differently and not see it recorded in the online expenses. In the Guyana context and in the backdrop of the array of public infrastructure projects, getting public input on the suitability of contractors, the quality and speed of their work, whether materials were being pilfered from worksites etc is vital. This assistance can only be mobilised, however, if the necessary information on the projects is publicised and the government appears willing to receive information and to act upon it.
Third, as a result of mandating the information disclosure, ministers and other public officials are immediately circumspect in the decisions they make knowing that there is an attentive and primed public out there.
Fourth, the government shows it is open to all forms of scrutiny, has nothing to hide and is prepared to act on information revealed. This has the effect in the Guyana context of assuring investors, donor countries and international financial institutions that the government wouldn't take kindly to corrupt acts or profligate spending.
There are many uses for this kind of openness in the Guyana experience. Too often, the media and the public form the view - based on a wealth of experience that the PPP/C government is secretive and wants to be the sole arbiter of what is disclosed. How else can one explain nearly 12 years after its accession to office its inability to reform rules which only permit the permanent secretary in each ministry to provide information to the media. Frequently the designated official would simply refuse to say anything or is never available. Some ministers and their top officials are quite cooperative and regularly available. But this is not true across the board and some ministries are virtually inaccessible such as the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development which dictates when, how and what it wants to communicate to the media and hence the public. The answer, of course, would be to have an information unit in each ministry or an information ministry that responds robustly to each inquiry.
Jamaica has already made a huge leap in the direction of full transparency in governmental dealings by passing and enforcing an Access to Information Act even if it has been criticised for declaring too many areas off limits. At least it has begun inculcating in the Jamaican public the belief that they can ask for information on public spending and be provided with it. The interested Kingston man and woman will sit up and pay attention.
Examples abound of cases where public nosiness could help to lift the veil on corruption, indiscriminate spending and other problems. The remigration scam which is now the subject of investigation by the police and the Guyana Revenue Authority revolves around the illicit granting of fiscal concessions to 54 applicants in the one month investigated. Were the applications for concessions publicised perhaps watchdogs might have been able to pick up right away who was patently ineligible for concessions - as several were - and blown the whistle. Even after the concessions were granted, had the list of concessionaires been publicised the public might have homed in much earlier than the government on the fraud. More importantly, those officials who cooked up the scheme and those members of the public who corrupted them would have thought twice about it.
The publication of the names of house lot allottees which used to be done at one stage is an example of a large undertaking involving state land where the public is indispensable in helping to identify those who already have lots.
So too, is the approval of firearm licences which has been extremely controversial in the past few years. This is also one area where there has been very little information. Given the recent controversy over Axel Williams' gun upgrade the public would have wanted to know much more about the procedures for and extent of approvals. If it wants to show transparency, the government should have no difficulty releasing records on the granting of firearm licences over the past three years for scrutiny and auditing.
Salaries for some public officials and their tax-free status as recently published in Stabroek News reports has also generated much interest. Here, the revealing of the information has helped to focus public discussion on whether value for money is being obtained and whether these salaries should fall outside of established norms.
The point is, there is a lot of important insight and comment to be generated from the cauldron of the public's examination of governance and the government should recognise that this is helpful, improves the quality of its own output and strengthens its credibility.