Promise versus Practice: the Dilemma of Open Government

Kevin Page


Meet Kevin Page. He is the Parliamentary Budget Officer in Canada.
An energetic, smart and dedicated man, Page is one of the linchpins of
accountability and transparency in Canada. His job is to prepare reports and
analysis for Parliament on the effect and cost of federal government

That job exists because the then-opposition Conservatives, handed
scandal and corruption in the final years of the previous Liberal government,
campaigned on accountability and transparency. They won and created the
Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO). Now they want to shut it down.

In other words, Kevin Page personifies the dilemma of open

His first major report, in September 2008, on the cost of Canada’s
war in Afghanistan, put the full figure around $18 billion – above government
Since then, he has revealed dodgy economic forecasting by the government,
poorer than claimed economic performance and problems with auto sector bailout
He does his job fearlessly and well.

Therein lies the rub. Promising more open government is easy on
the campaign trail, but putting promise into practice? That presents unique
challenges for most governments. 

The blunt tool once used to pound opponents can, once in power,
suddenly seem a double-edged sword. It’s now your inner workings on display, your
mistakes under the microscope, your decisions
made more accountable.

Ask Kevin Page what that can mean. 
Requests for PBO work can come from any Member of Parliament or a
Parliamentary Committee.  It’s been
excellent for democracy in Canada, providing the opposition parties with
top-notch, credible critiques of government action.  Less helpful for the government.

So much less helpful, in fact, that the PBO’s good work has
prompted its muzzling. Starved of funds, its functions curtailed, the PBO and
Kevin Page are testament to the fact that governments are not always
comfortable being open.[iii]

That’s why, as the Rudd Government’s Task Force on "Government
2.0" steps firmly into this territory, it’s worth stepping back from the
nitty-gritty of implementing new tools for open government. As the experience
of other countries shows, the big picture alone is rife with challenges. 

Parties mostly campaign on things they want to do: reform
education, tackle climate change, cut taxes, etc. In power, if their
implementation is fumbled, those policies can reflect badly on the government.
Openness (including accountability and transparency) is about introducing a new
dynamic into the operation of government itself. 

Openness can make life tough. 
Transparency opens the door to criticism; ending secrecy increases risk
and exposure; accountability means being held accountable. 

The reflexive progressive response is to recognize the obviousness
of these claims and nevertheless assert the need for the principle to triumph.
It’s thus tempting to dismiss Prime Minister Harper as having a penchant for
secrecy, much like his political role model John Howard.

Such an analysis isn’t helpful. It fails to recognize the
pressures and dynamics at play in putting promises of open government into

One clear factor is that the pay-offs from increased
accountability are often deferred: avoiding scandal and corruption; increasing
citizen and civil society engagement; making it tougher for the opposition to
wield the same blunt tool of "no accountability, no transparency." All
benefits, but ones that can feel distant to a new and surely-virtuous
government. By contrast, the risk of mistakes and negative stories overwhelming
the government’s message and narrative seems immediate.

Given the dominant role of communications and media staff in many
political offices, it’s not surprising that short-termism dominates. Preventing
immediate damage is often more valued than potential long-term benefit.  In a media culture transfixed by scandal, openness
in action can seem like a very big risk to spin doctors, press secretaries and

Another dynamic is illustrated by President Obama’s efforts on
transparency. After the secrecy and unaccountability that characterized the
Bush years, committing to greater openness was a political no-brainer for
candidate Obama. 

Obama had the credentials to back it up, having sponsored the
"Google for Government" legislation that made large quantities of US federal
government material accessible online.[iv]
To his credit, President Obama has acted
to increase transparency – but he’s also drawn significant criticism on the
liberal left for failing to live up to his ideals.

In many areas of open government, Obama’s efforts have been
admirable. The White House’s "Open Government Initiative" is well underway.
Over several months, and with buy-in from multiple agencies, the White House
developed and improved sites like
and to bring new
levels of access and transparency.[v]
Openness on government operations is certainly making strides under Obama.

In contrast, under pressure from the intelligence and military
communities, he refused to release photographic and other evidence of American
torture during ‘war on terror’ interrogations. Despite rescinding many Bush
Executive Orders on secrecy, he has quietly maintained a similar attitude to
secrecy and even threatened to veto expanded intelligence briefings to Congressional

For Obama, the pressure to retain strong secrecy in a national
security context is evidently having its effect. At least in the security
sphere, the best intentions for transparency can run aground.

Laying the accountability groundwork early – and continuing to
build on it – is smart policy. Overcoming inertia – internal to party rooms and
civil services – will pay dividends, especially in the long term, if it isn’t
wound back, like Canada’s PBO, or allowed to grow rusty and inefficient, like
freedom of information in Australia.

The UK’s Labour Party is no doubt ruing its failure to ensure
greater transparency in MP spending. If all MP and House of Lord expenses were
automatically made public, would any have been so foolish as to bill taxpayers
for moat cleaning, duck houses and adult films? 

Accountability can create discomfort, like the PBO’s exposure of
overly optimistic forecasting in Canada’s 2009 budget.[vii]
There can, however, also be internal pressures to limit open government.
Administrative challenges, institutional resistance from politicians and civil
servants, and competing priorities can all push back. 

What’s more, governments possess finite resources and finite
energy. New governments are still learning the ropes. Old governments rarely
have the appetite for reform. Crises, economic and otherwise, consume the
attention of policymakers and the public.

The media, although reliant on access to information laws for
investigation, doesn’t find transparency sexy unless it’s accompanied by
corruption or scandal. This can be a blessing – the issues are not muddied by a
stream of mindless punditry – and a curse – little popular push for

Does all of this mean the case is hopeless? That greater
transparency should not be a priority for Australia? Absolutely not.

Advocates should continue to apply pressure. Solutions should be
proposed. Tools developed. Ideas put forward. 

Open government currently has a momentum of its own that should be
capitalised on. Government websites make accessing information far easier than
ever before. 

Incremental steps forward, like the UK site that provides
people with a single port of call for government services, are a sign of
progress. In fact, such initiatives, simple as they are, help transform open
government from abstract concept into helpful reality for citizens. 

Stronger and more efficient freedom of information processes,
independent watchdogs and parliamentary budget offices all strengthen democracy
and hold governments to account.

What matters is building a culture of openness that works with,
rather than against the processes of governance. Accountability needs to
produce better government, not simply slower government.

For a strong, confident and popular government the price of
delivering on the promise of accountability and openness is worth paying. 

Let’s hope the Rudd government puts its promises into practice and
doesn’t offer watered down accountability instead. With little to lose, now is
the time for this government to act. 

Otherwise open government in Australia, no matter how many nifty
technologies are developed, will end up like Canada’s Kevin Page: marginalised,
starved of resources and on the chopping block.


[i] Fiscal Impact of the Canadian Mission in
Afghanistan – October 9, 2008
, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Canada.  p. 8. 
$18.1 billion is the estimated cost to withdrawal in 2011.  Government claimed current cost at $8bn
compared to $10.1 billion in the PBO report.


[ii] Budget 2009 Economic and Fiscal Outlook – Key
, 5 February 2009,’s Recent Economic Performance, 11
March 2009,;
Proposed Financial Support for the Canadian Automotive Sector,
17 February


[iv] The
official name of the bill was "A bill to require full disclosure of all entities
and organizations receiving Federal funds."

[v] White House Open
Government:  Discussion of the process:

[vi] Secrecy:
and Department of Justice court filing
Congressional briefings:

[vii] Budget 2009 Economic and Fiscal Outlook – Key
, 5 February 2009,

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