October 13, 2011
Is the City Making the Grade When it Comes to Transparency?
Herb Duncan, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, October 12, 2011
Last week, I wrote about some of the critical cornerstones of good governance. To refresh your memory they are: participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient.
Today's column, as was last week's, is in response to an article in this newspaper last week that read, in part: "City staff is fending off criticisms that it refused to disclose records on public spending, saying the municipality has made great strides to give the public access to government reports and budgets."
Again you, the taxpaying public, are being given an opportunity to decide if the city is making the grade for the transparency cornerstone of the "good governance" model.
Newspapers Canada, an industry association, had students embark on the task of obtaining information from 39 public organizations - asking for social media policies for employees, the past three budgets for public communications and a copy of a specified public works contract. The information requests were made to federal and provincial governments, hospitals and cities.
The exercise was to determine the willingness of the 39 entities to provide the public with a reasonably clear and accurate snapshot of their respective operations.
Notice I didn't say "Mission Impossible." If governments are truly committed to openness and transparency, it shouldn't be like pulling teeth, should it?
According to the article, both Fredericton and Moncton provided all or most of the information requested. However, Saint John refused to provide much of the information requested.
The article continued, "David Burke, the privacy and information manager, said the city is much more transparent than what a recent, highly critical study made it out to be. For instance, he said the city's website contains an archive of about 305,000 pages of municipal records - bylaws, council reports and minutes of council meetings - dating back to at least 1785."
So I dove into the city's veritable data pool of information. I decided to search for the city's organizational chart. Let's face it, if common council is discussing hirings, firings and hiring freezes as the result of our current financial crisis, shouldn't council and taxpayers have a clear picture of the structure? Who is filling the slots and what their responsibilities are?
I dug and I dug and I dug, but try as I might I couldn't find an organizational chart. Hmm, I thought, maybe cities don't use organizational charts? In an effort to verify this, I decided to call Moncton city hall. At the other end of the line a pleasant young lady in the human resource department willingly took my request.
Her instructions, after I had navigated to the Moncton website, was click the government tab, now click the department tab. Voila! The Moncton's organizational chart.
Perhaps I wasn't skillful enough at finding the easily accessible organizational chart for Saint John so I decided to call seasoned councillor Bill Farren for directions. He would have the answer. He advised that some six or more years ago during his first term in office he had asked for a chart of "who did what" and was advised that the "who did what" list didn't exist or that it was not available. He offered that although the city doesn't currently have an updated organizational chart, management is working on developing one. Does that mean we're not there yet?
I could accept that perhaps the students from Newspaper Canada had caught city hall on a bad day when the "spirit" of co-operation was faint. Except for a report issued by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy last year.
The centre has its Frontier Index, which measures municipal financial transparency.
Kelowna, B.C., placed first on a list of 133 cities while Saint John came in dead last with a single point. That's right - dead last with a single point.
Transparency as a cornerstone of good governance is critical to building public trust.
Lack of transparency, whether unintentional, intentional or by willful omission, will destroy that trust. It's your city and your tax dollars, you decide if city hall is making the grade for the transparency cornerstone.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."