As a member of the Institute of Corporate Governance, I follow governance issues quite closely. More and more of our work at H&K involves working with corporate boards of directors. So I couldn’t help but to be interested in recent media commentary on governance in the public sector.
Information is power. This maxim rules every government. We can see this in the federal government’s reaction to the report of the information commissioner; the Taliban detainees inquiry; and wariness of communications with lobbyists. The instinct to withhold information is exactly why the Ontario auditor general called for access to more information and regular communication on e-Health, and explains Barack Obama’s memorandum on new guidelines on accountability and transparency to the heads of US executive department and agencies. Of course there are real commercial and national security reasons why information should be withheld. But just as often, reluctance to disclose is a standard operating procedure.
I recall Penny Collenette, former director of appointments in prime minister Chrétien’s office, telling me that when she first wanted to publish a listing of all Governor-in-Council appointments, she received a lot of pushback but said, “after publishing, absolutely nothing happened”, except Penny was able to build a stronger database of qualified individuals. All governments work on a need to know basis. It is one of the reasons why even departments of government often have little knowledge about the work in other departments.
This attitude seems increasingly odd because government is the first to regulate transparency in the private sector. Publicly traded corporations are monitored closely by the OSC or the SEC and have a growing list of disclosure requirements. After the Enron fiasco the US government was quick to bring in SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act) to regulate and expose the inner workings of business.
Disclosure also includes transparency on corporate governance procedures, board attendance and resolutions. The board minutes are kept by corporate secretaries and no one questions the right to subpoena these minutes in the event of litigation. Imagine the dust up if cabinet discussions were subpoenaed, or cabinet attendance or agendas disclosed. CEOs like me, are now subjected to a truth test and must file an annual certification to attest that material does not contain any misrepresentation and that data is fairly presented. When was the last time a cabinet minister was held accountable to an annual certification standard? The concept of ministerial responsibility has been eroded considerably over the years.
Now I admit, comparisons between business and government only go so far, but my point is that in a world where good corporate governance and transparency is becoming an accepted norm of business, all governments still operate with considerable opacity. That’s odd because publicly traded companies and government leaders are both elected, one by shareholders and one by tax payers. But somehow in a world where—to use Don Tapscott’s phrase “corporations are going naked” – government continues to try to buck this trend.
I believe that government can do a better job of embracing transparent decision making without revealing sensitive details on matters of national security, commercial confidentially or public health. The public would gain insight into the choices government has to navigate and in return the level of public engagement and discourse may be elevated.
Those of us interested in public affairs are very aware that the public is increasingly disillusioned and disconnected from government. We see the results of this at every election as voter turnout continues to drop. Is it any wonder that in a world of Facebook where people are becoming more open about sharing their personal lives or business with others, all governments look increasingly out of step and anachronistic? It’s just another reason why public interest in good government continues to erode.