Justin Trudeau's openness plan reveals too much government sausage-making

Some of Justin Trudeau's "transformational" measures to make politics more accountable are good, says former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall. But one is "nuts."

Imagine how your work would change if the public could read your emails, writes Andrew MacDougall

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau introduced proposals for more transparent government this week. But former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall says opening political staffers' emails to access to information requests is a step too far. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In a bid to avoid becoming an afterthought in the wake of Tom Mulcair's psephological onslaught, Justin Trudeau has thrown down a thick tranche of "transformational" measures to make politics more accountable.

What does he have planned?

He wants to replace Canada's first-past-the-post voting system. He wants to bin government ad buys. He wants to change the way parliamentary committees are chaired. He wants to make the government's open data regime even opener. He wants —

Hey – wake up! This next one is important.

Trudeau wants to make the Access to Information Act system stretch all the way into the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices.

Is he nuts!?

Pardon the language. Thousands of impertinent emails from my past life just flashed before my eyes.

Only someone who has never served in government would propose such a thing.

And that's exactly the point, I'm sure Trudeau would reply.

Is sunshine the best policy disinfectant?

If public policy is a sausage, how much sausage-making should the public see? Can one even make good sausages when every step in the recipe is open to scrutiny? Or do we all get sick?

Or, to flip the question around: is the political wing of government entitled to a measure of opacity?

These are the questions now up for debate given that Trudeau has pledged to stick his flashlight where the sun don't shine.

But isn't this an unalloyed good? Who could be opposed to more transparency? Well, other than the "short pants" crowd. #obvs

How about the policy crowd, for one?

Exercising the challenge function

Ask yourself what is better: public policy that's made in "secret" and then revealed to the public, or a policy process that pulls its punches because its authors didn't want to ask — or answer — the uncomfortable question or challenge from their colleagues during its development?

The current system recognises that cabinet ministers need to have a forum where they can have unfiltered debate. That's why cabinet confidence exists. And to be fair, Trudeau isn't pledging to touch that at all.

But I'd argue the political staffers that support ministers need some discretion too.

Your number one challenge as a political staffer is to help implement the government's agenda, and that involves scrutinizing what your departments put forward as first drafts of those policies.

If you're in the Prime Minister's Office, it then involves scrutinizing what your ministers' offices are putting forward for cabinet consideration.

Things move pretty quickly and there's not always time to observe the Marquess of Queensberry rules. There would often be knock down, drag-out debates amongst ministerial offices as policies were moved through the cabinet committee system. These confrontations would (sometimes) deliver a better policy.

Yes, a lot of the battling was done face-to-face, or over the phone, or over Blackberry PIN messages, but a good deal of it was also transacted via email. Knowing that all of that correspondence would be accessible to the public domain would have certainly changed the way I did my job.

It would change the way you do your job, too.

What would your work world look like under ATIP?

Let's accept that my arguments are self-serving. Do I have a point?

This is where the "but I pay your salary" crowd chime in with a quick "no."

But before you go with that reflex, try to picture what your workplace would be like if your emails were subject to public disclosure.

Think of all the internecine battles that are part and parcel of any office. Think of the snide comments about your colleagues often said in frustration. Now picture it on a front page.

Think that would change your behaviour — or drive it further underground? Would that make your company perform better, or worse?

Should your company be judged on the end result of those battles, or on the journey taken to get there?

As long as there's accountability for what actually ends up being done, I'd vote for the former.

Granted, my tax dollars probably don't pay for your work, but I'm not sure that argument holds water with government. Of course there should be a different standard for public life and that standard is the Access to Information regime.

But its reach is not absolute.

There are already lots of government information beyond public reach for a variety of valid legal reasons. I'm not sure removing those protections from political emails would do much to further anyone's cause.

Besides, the people who are up to no good — and they exist in every government — try not to leave anything in writing.

And that's the thing: Trudeau's proposed reforms wouldn't have their intended effect.

Will reform fall victim to ingenuity?

Like all mousetraps, the changes would spur staffer innovation. And it would be from the very party that proposed the new regime, once they figured out just how restrictive it would be.

Face-to-face or the phone would become the new normal. Far fewer emails will be sent. Decisions would be made and communicated by messenger services like BBM, Whatsapp, Snapchat or Kik. Systems that don't leave a trace.

The same type of avoidance happens every time the Access to Information regime is expanded. There is a point of diminishing return. The system is creaking along as it stands.

And then there are the possible unintended consequences. Imagine if emails between the media and government were included. Every time an exclusive story appeared in the press there would be a torrent of ATIP requests into the relevant ministerial office.

The process merry-go-round would never stop spinning. We'd talk more about sausage making, and less about the sausage.

Wouldn't that be fun?

For now, let's give Trudeau his due. He plonked down some serious proposals, and the current government should be the first one to applaud the proposed changes.

After all, they could be instrumental in getting the new guys out of office, should they ever get the chance to hold it.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.


Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.


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