Transparency challenged

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Colour blindness is an interesting concept: everyone is exposed to the same wavelengths of light and, in most people, the cones in the back of each eye perceive a full range of those wavelengths, so that people “see” the same colours.

Genetic disorders (or illness) can result in some of the cones not working properly, or in failed transmission of information from some cones to the brain.

The result is that some colours simply vanish. For those affected, the colours don’t exist in the same way that they do for others. To a large degree, you could say that someone with lifelong colour blindness is simply incapable of understanding what green looks like. For them, green might be a muddy brown or something closer to a blue.

It’s far from the only kind of blindness.

And during the recent public presentations on the province’s access to information law, a different kind of blindness was front and centre.

You could call it transparency blindness.

Modern governments love to crow that they are “transparent and accountable.”

Often, though, they don’t seem to really understand what’s involved in that commitment.

Take statements from senior provincial government civil servants about cabinet briefing books before the review committee. Civil servants want to keep an exemption on releasing cabinet ministers’ briefing books, primarily because going through the books line by line to delete advice to cabinet ministers takes too long.

If you are going to run a truly transparent government, there is going to be plenty of extra work making sure huge volumes of information are available — you either view that as a necessary part of doing your job (a responsibility, in fact) or else you’re blind to what the commitment means. You can say you support fitness; being fit, though, takes hard work.

Committee chairman Clyde Wells asked a pointed question: why not separate the two parts of the information, putting the groundwork of the issue first, and the advice to the minister second? That way, redacting the advice would be simple. Even that was a simple concept the civil servants seemed incapable of grasping. Releasing the information is just too much work.

It goes on.

Other former government staff talked about the problems of access to information being used to embarrass staff or their ministers. That’s also not really the point.

True transparency doesn’t hinge on whether or not someone might be embarrassed by information. A commitment to release information serves the electorate. The decision to withhold it to prevent embarrassment is serving someone else entirely.

That should be obvious, and the fact that it isn’t is telling. Somewhere, there’s a critical disconnect. It’s almost as if some within government are unable to see what it is to be fully transparent.

It’s not about releasing the information that you want to release, or releasing the information that’s easiest to release, or choosing to hand out the information that puts you in the best light.

It’s about releasing all sorts of information and letting the people you serve decide what to do with it.

The only question is whether the blindness is genetic, or something more wilful.

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