Sunshine lists a symptom of misguided zeal
I’m almost afraid to say it. I’m sure I’ll be attacked. Simply by saying it, I expect I’ll be accused of having something to hide. Ah, heck, I’ll say it anyway.
I don’t think transparency is always a good thing.
In this information age, we have developed a cult of transparency, especially when it comes to government and the public sector. The sentiment goes that, since all information tends to be stored digitally and since it is so easy to post digital information on the Internet, then it should all be posted.
And so we have open data portals and we have sunshine lists. We have public posting of contracts of employment and contracts for business. The defence of such disclosure is often just transparency itself.
I’m not against transparency — how could anyone be nowadays? But I am against the cultlike attitude that suggests that all transparency is good, just because. I resent the insinuation that if you are against transparency, it must be because you are trying to hide something.
With the advent of the Internet and the easy public access to all sorts of personal information, we need to be increasingly diligent about matters of privacy.
This editorial is of, course, a reaction to the Alberta government’s inconsistent Bill 5, the Public Sector Compensation Transparency Act. As originally written, the bill would allow school boards to haphazardly post the names and salaries of every employee working for them.
I’m hopeful that Bill 5 will be amended. In fact, I expect common sense and fairness will prevail and that by the time you read this essay it will have been fixed. I know that the bill touched a nerve among teachers, and I know that you have been persistent in letting MLAs know your thoughts on it. I applaud you for this civic engagement.
But settling this one issue will not resolve the cult of transparency. Because Bill 5 is just one example of the cult at work.
Federal Bill C-377 will force the public disclosure of the financial statements and transactions of unions. It’s based on the premise that the public has a right to know detailed information about union finances. That premise is wrong; the duty to report is a duty owed to members as the owners of their union.
Some school boards also got it wrong in the last round of collective bargaining when they posted privileged and confidential documents on their websites. They ignored how posting the documents would wreck the trust between parties at the table. It was very damaging to the goal of achieving an agreement.
I’m mindful that many of these transparency initiatives are a devious strategy of neoliberal ideology. It is noble to justify transparency in order to prevent abuse, misuse and corruption, and it has definitely been used to do that. However, many people are just looking for ways to make the public sector look corrupt or inefficient in order to justify privatization.
In my mind there are three important questions to address when determining what information should be made public. First, who owns the information, and what value do they get by making it public? Second, what privacy rights are being infringed upon, and is that infringement justified by the value of the public release? Third, what are the negative operational consequences created as a byproduct, and are they justified by the value of disclosure?
At the end of the day, transparency needs to be viewed as a balancing of interests. There are reasonable questions to ask, and they need to be asked. If we are not allowed to ask these questions, then the cult leaders have succeeded in indoctrinating us. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.