Monday, April 6, 2015

Post-Hole Digging XIV: Secrecy and intergovernmental relations

It’s old knowledge among scholars of Canadian politics that intergovernmental relations (IGR), that set of interactions between the federal, provincial, and territorial governments which constitutes a significant amount of the work government does in this country, is secretive.  Political scientist Donald Smiley coined the term ‘executive federalism’ to make the point that IGR in Canada excludes legislators, the public, scholars- essentially everyone who isn’t a member of the executive.  In essence, if you’re not a cabinet member, first minister, or member of the bureaucracy actively working in IGR, getting access to that world is very difficult.

          Which makes my decision to study IGR at the level of civil servants all the more challenging.  It’s not like I didn’t know about this going in.  I’ve read all about it, and during my MA experienced some of this secrecy.  And while I’ve been able to get sufficient access for my dissertation, it’s required a fair bit of pestering and prodding on my part.   

          But last week, I got a bit of an expected slap in the face in the form of a denial for information.  A bit of background is necessary here.

          I’m studying three separate case studies for my dissertation.  One of them is an intergovernmental working group that was set up in 2012.  It initially produced a major report, but since the first year, only a handful of communiqués have been released.  Through my conversations with civil servants, I’m given to understand that there are, in fact, other reports, but that they weren’t made public, presumably because the conclusions of these later reports were not flattering.  So I filed an Access to Information request with the government who’s currently leading the file.  And now, after two months, my request has been refused. 

          All access to information legislation in Canada has a provision which allows governments to keep certain information secret.  One of these provisions is the risk of “disclosure that is harmful to intergovernmental relations”. On these grounds, my request was denied.

          The practical effect of this limitation is that no information about IGR gets released, because any and all of it might be ‘harmful’.  So studying it is made that much harder, because the only information you have to work with is information that governments want you to have.
          This is not just me complaining about something that’s ‘inside baseball’.  A lot of the work government does in Canada involves some amount of IGR.  None, or very little, of this work gets scrutinized, because it can’t.  You might recognize this as the opposite of transparency.

                I don’t want to make sweeping statements about the quality of democracy.  There are logical reasons why certain information, about ongoing negotiations for instance, can and should be protected.  But extending that protection to all IGR files as a default doesn’t make things better in Canada.  Less information is bad for scholars, but it’s also bad for citizens and for government.  If we’re genuinely interested in having the best, evidence-based policy in Canada (although that’s a big if), then the restrictions around IGR documents need to be loosened.       

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