Transparency, the buzzword, is enjoying a moment. There’s no end to breathless talk of open governments, naked corporations and radical transparency of all kinds. The Internet-inspired notion is that we’ve left a dark past behind, one in which power was built by hoarding secrets, and have entered a new age where information flows fast and free between connected institutions and individuals, to everyone’s mutual benefit. Transparency began as the kind of thing you’d hear in TED-type talks or in WIRED magazine think-pieces. Since then it has trickled down until every middle-manager returning from a lunch-and-learn is bandying it about. Even Stephen Harper, arguably history’s most opaque, press-evading, data clutching prime minister, had the gall to use it.
And why not? Transparency is a pleasing little morsel of pop philosophy, and not without a nugget of truth.
While transparency as a buzzword may remain in vogue, transparency in practice remains as unpopular as ever. Take, for example, the RCMP.
In a Global News interview, Suzanne Legault, our Federal Information Commissioner, says that the RCMP have just stopped responding to Access to Information requests entirely:
“This past year at some point, they completely stopped responding…I’ve never seen that in four years since I’ve been here.”
Let’s put that in context. Serving ATIP requests is a legal obligation of the RCMP under the Access to Information Act. If they are ignoring the requests they receive from journalists and other citizens, our top cops are breaking the law, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times. When pressed by Global News, The RCMP denied wrongdoing. It claims that it’s just like every other government agency, only more so. It’s jammed with requests and will get to them all in good time.
This defence seems pretty standard in the late Harper era, where many public offices have lost respect for an ATIP request, as many journalists and Legault would confirm. Information arrives late, incomplete, or not at all. And though yes, it’s a legal obligation for agencies, including the RCMP, to comply, good luck holding them to it. Legault herself has no ability to enforce our information laws. She functions in a watchdog capacity, barking and not biting, by design.
Given the toothlessness of our information laws, why should the Mounties actually serve ATIP requests? Why should anyone? Transparency may sound cool, but it’s just another way of saying accountability, and who wants more of that? Nobody hands over information that incriminates them unless they absolutely have to. And no bureaucracy opens up its files carelessly, just in case there’s something in there that the public hasn’t yet considered. And the RCMP, with past incidents including immigrant-tasering, serial-killer ignoring and a selfie-snapping officer, has plenty to worry about.
That’s the problem with transparency as a buzzword: it’s optional. It’s all carrot and no stick.
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown