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  (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

 

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Finding the reasonable limit for government transparency Add to ...

There will be further expressions of outrage, and professions of contrition, and speculation about what a police investigation might yield. Then new rules will be written, and old ones given more teeth. New information technology will probably be purchased, so that personal discretion counts for less.

After all that, it is unlikely that Ontario government e-mails will again be wiped from the record, as they were – recklessly, indefensibly and ultimately self-defeatingly – by provincial Liberals before Dalton McGuinty left office. And that will be a good thing, so far as it goes.

But to believe it will lead to vastly more transparency in how government functions would be to grossly underestimate the ever-changing array of options that public officials and political staff have to communicate with each other. And it would oversimplify a tricky question about how much we can and should reasonably expect to know about those conversations.

One of the surprises about the latest twist in the scandal around the cancellation of gas-fired power plants is that government e-mails were sufficiently sensitive that former chiefs of staff to Mr. McGuinty and his energy minister seemingly felt the need to scrub them.

There is a reason why political staffers tend to carry two smartphones, one of which is not government property, and to conduct electronic communications through BlackBerry Messenger or text messages or personal e-mail accounts: Such things are not subject to Freedom of Information requests, and are generally much less likely to come to light.

These habits are not unique to Ontario Liberals – they’re common at various levels of government, and not just in this country. In the United States, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama (and current mayor of Chicago) Rahm Emanuel and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are among those who have faced criticism for similar behaviour. The latter came to office on the promise of running the most transparent government in his state’s history; he was subsequently pilloried for eschewing both his government and personal e-mail in favour of BlackBerry’s PIN messaging.

Governments may be able to crack down on such things, to an extent, if they’re so inclined. But given how fast technologies evolve, even with the best of intentions it will always be a game of catch-up.

There is another method to avoid creating a paper trail: It’s called picking up the phone. If you talk to people who hold senior roles in government or have previously, many will concede they wish public employees would do it more often. Because more than any other, those are the conversations that can be kept secret.

It has long been thus, which brings us back to a question that bears asking in the information age: Just how much do we need to know, or deserve to, about how governments make their decisions?

There is certainly cause for concern that the pendulum has swung too far away from documentation. Something that would previously have been put on paper and then filed away for posterity shouldn’t be lost to the public record just because it’s now easy to go paperless.

But it’s also not unreasonable for political staff and public servants to have frank discussions amongst themselves that aren’t for public consumption. To get to the point at which they feel compelled to document every exchange could stifle their ability to frankly debate the pros and cons of government decisions, or to propose ideas that might be controversial.

For now, we’re nowhere near too much disclosure being the problem. The challenge remains just figuring out what should and shouldn’t be done in the relative open, and then finding reasonable ways to enforce that.

None of this is to excuse the provincial Liberals who erased existing records of considerable interest. Even setting aside the value of those documents, the public has a right to expect government officials to follow the rules. But there’s no point in pretending to be naive about those rules’ limitations.

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