Secrecy in government costly for all

If anything inflamed the controversy surrounding the City of Winnipeg’s plans to hire Veolia Canada to upgrade and help run two city sewage treatment plants, it was these words reported by the Winnipeg Free Press on May 20, 2010:

But Mayor Sam Katz and his executive policy committee argued the city never makes the details of any contract public and an army of lawyers, accountants and engineers within the city and in the private sector have vetted the deal.

“Why don’t you have faith in our staff who have done their due diligence?” Katz asked opposition councillors. “At some point in time you gotta believe in the people who may have a little more knowledge than you.”

If anyone can go online to read the details of a purchase order contract for $52.9 million Aus. of computer hardware, software and services by a state government agency in Australia, then why should similar disclosure continue to “never” be done in Winnipeg?

It’s not as if Australia — one of the world’s best-managed countries, as this blog pointed out previously — has suffered for its openness.

Or ask yourself this: Can Winnipeg claim to be one of Canada’s best-run cities under current practices?

In fact, increasing openness, accessibility and transparency in public life is one of the best things that a government can do to improve the public’s economic well-being and even to help balance its books.

Secrecy, by comparison, is a stealthy pickpocket that leaves citizens worse off and decreases the odds of a government ever balancing its books.

The first chart below shows the substantial relationship between openness in government and gross domestic product per capita among member-states of the OECD.* The higher a country placed in the chart, the better it performed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, an annual assessment of how well countries have done in living up to the ideal that the public has the right to know what their government is up to and that government exists for the equal benefit of all.

The second chart below is based on the relationship between how each country performed* in the Corruption Perceptions Index and the gap between general government revenues and expenditures. As shown, the more open a government was, the more likely it was to balance its books. Again, it’s a solid relationship.

It suggests that the winners of this week’s Mayoral and City Council contests should resolve to spend the next four years working on openness in government if they wish to be remembered as the council that left its citizens and the city’s finances in better shape than they found them.

One step might be to follow the lead established by the government of the Australian state of Victoria, which requires that all contracts valued at over $100,000 Aus. ($101,000 Cdn.) be publicly disclosed.

* – Outliers and countries with incomplete data excluded.

Sources: Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2009 and OECD in Figures, 2009 edition

Update, Oct. 26: Today, Transparency International released the Corruption Perceptions Index 2010. Canada was the 6th least corrupt country in the world, with a score of 8.9 out of 10. The Top 5 were: Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore (tied at 9.3), Finland and Sweden (tied at 9.2).

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to Secrecy in government costly for all

  1. Brian says:

    You say Australia, I say the UK and Ontario… In London, the Coalition Govt. has promised to release all contracts not covered by national security classifications, and PC Ontario Leader Tim Hudak just promised to publish all consulting contracts worth over $10k annually.

    The problem here is that even after six years, Sam is so lacking in interest in the subject of government, governing and policy that he simply *doesn’t know* what comparable governments are doing, and therefore assumes they must be doing the same things he’s doing. And why would think otherwise, when so many of those standing around him keep telling him he’s doing such a great job, without any effort to compare to other cities or governments themselves?

  2. Reed Solomon says:

    hear hear

  3. Pingback: World Spinner

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