Every election cycle, in every campaign from school board to prime minister, two sets of vows are made: incumbent politicians promise to continue listening to the public, while their opponents promise to change government by throwing open its doors.
The B.C. Liberal leadership race was no different, with candidate Christy Clark leading the charge for change. "Taxpayers need to know how their money is being spent and if their elected officials are meeting their promises," Clark said in her platform, noting her desire to "rebuild public trust and reconnect people with government."
Unfortunately, unless Premier Christy Clark takes action, she might miss a golden opportunity to walk out on her commitment to open government.
Under Gordon Campbell, the B.C. government spent $124,522.48 on a legal battle to prevent the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) from getting a copy of a $300 million government services contract with IBM. FIPA requested the contract eight years ago under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOI).
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) uncovered the legal price tag through its own FOI request. The B.C. government, which has been ordered by both the Information and Privacy Commissioner and a B.C. Supreme Court judge to release the IBM contract, has instead decided to appeal the matter in court in March, which will cost taxpayers even more money.
In a $43 billion provincial budget, $124,522.48 may not seem like a big deal. After all, it wouldn't even cover Pamela Martin's annual salary (whose job description includes helping Clark's "vision of creating open government by reaching out to British Columbians"). But the principle of democratic transparency is one that must be fought for, every day, lest governments forget they serve the citizens -- not the other way around.
The B.C. Liberal government has improved its transparency since Clark came in, posting open data sets, hosting Twitter town halls with cabinet ministers Mary Polak and George Abbott, and bringing in an Auditor General for local government.
But the systemic secrecy around government contracts and MLA expenses should still trouble taxpayers.
The simplest solution is for Clark to order proactive disclosure of as much information as possible. In a digital age, there is no reason why the provincial government can't post a database of the contracts it has signed on behalf of taxpayers, or itemized lists of expenses incurred by its officials.
Recently, through another FOI request, the CTF discovered that the Premier's year-end, four-minute-long, YouTube video cost taxpayers $8,960 to produce -- $35.56 per second, or $3.38 per YouTube view.
This relatively simple request took two letters from Victoria, along with a government staffer tracking down the relevant invoice, checking for legal issues, and forwarding us a copy. It certainly isn't the most efficient way to get information out to taxpayers. The government could have saved time and money by proactively putting the contract up online.
FOI is an important tool for citizens to get a hold of records and documents produced by the government, to better understand why and how decisions are made in our democracy, and to hold those in authority to account for their actions.
But for Premier Clark's government to truly be considered open, it must go beyond FOI and become proactive. Post government contracts and MLA expenses as they are signed and incurred -- and start with the infamous IBM contract.