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We want an open government, but we’re far too critical for it

Perhaps you are one of those people who wonder why government seemingly goes out of its way to conduct business behind closed doors? If so, read on.

Last week, there was a news report about a proposed new physics curriculum for high school students in British Columbia. A draft of the curriculum was circulated for comment. The document very plainly was not a finished product. It was a draft. Government wanted input. As in, help us revise this document so that the final version is the best it can be.

That's not the input they got from a physicist at Simon Fraser University named Steve Dodge. Rather than try to improve the document, he went public. He slammed it. He called it "slapdash."

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Here is a case where the government deliberately sought public input on an important policy initiative. And what the government got was not thanks from citizens for the opportunity to offer their thoughts, but a sharp kick in the backside.

If you were in the government, how keen would you be about the next opportunity to share a draft document with the public?

Now to be fair, some folks, such as Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, and Grahame Rainey, president of the B.C. Science Teachers' Association, welcomed the opportunity to comment on the draft curriculum. Someone even pointed out that drafts such as these would not normally have been released, but the Education Ministry decided that it would be a good idea to routinely post such material to solicit feedback.

I don't mean to pick on Prof. Dodge, and this is not a column about how to improve our high school physics curriculum. It's a column about how we get the government we deserve. In particular, we say we want open government, but there's ample reason to doubt we would ever actually know what to do with it. Is open government about looking for fun new ways to embarrass politicians, or is it about giving ourselves as citizens the tools to improve how we are governed?

You won't get much help from political commentators on this question. On Mondays, pundits shake with indignation when government officials dare to delete e-mails. On Tuesdays, the same pundits fall all over themselves in a rush to embarrass government officials over the contents of those e-mails.

When I ran for office, then-premier Gordon Campbell made a promise to permit free votes on anything that was not (to use the formal term) a matter of confidence. Caucus members exercised that right from time to time. A government MLA would rise during a debate on a government bill, explain why he or she was going to vote against it and then do so. The headline the next day was never, "Premier keeps his promise to permit free votes." The usual headline was a version of, "B.C. Liberal caucus hopelessly divided." In short, the media both demand openness and punish it.

This may come as news to you, but governments are composed of human beings. When the result of daring to conduct a preliminary policy discussion in public is that the initial work is dismissed as slapdash, we should not be surprised if the government takes policy discussions back behind closed doors. Not because politicians have easily bruised feelings, but because experience too often teaches them that people don't have much to offer except criticism.

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It doesn't have to be this way, of course. But we will have to want to change it.

Geoff Plant was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practises law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.

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