One of Premier Bob McLeod’s election promises is that he will create a minister of Transparency and Democratic Engagement. However, what the GNWT needs to achieve is a culture of accountability.
A culture of accountability does not develop by establishing a new ministry. It may not hurt – but a new ministry alone will not resolve fundamental issues.
Accountability is about elected representatives following laws and policies that build trust and confidence that they are working to serve the interests of the people. It is about governing better.
Being accountable means being able to justify actions and decisions in a way that is understandable. In recent years, politicians increasingly answer questions in ways that don’t respond to what is being asked. Relying on ideology as the basis for decision-making, for example, is not accountability. Neither is rejecting a question as supposedly invalid, or refusing to give a reasonable answer.
Utilizing evidence and criteria that are shared publicly, or relying on processes that are clearly set out in policy, is part of accountability.
Transparency means creating a culture (specific mechanisms and processes) where decision-making is done in public; where accessibility of decision-making criteria and information is publicly available; and, ensuring that different views and interests are balanced within decision-making processes.
Being accountable requires transparency at the outset. Transparency and accountability are not two distinct approaches to government. Transparency and accountability are nested one within the other.
For the last few years, Yellowknifer David Wasylciw has initiated a significant and extremely effective transparency initiative called Open NWT (opennwt.ca). It directly addresses the fact that while the GNWT produces vast amounts of information, and may even make it public, it is often not “accessible” in the sense of being easy to find. Open NWT has a focus on the legislative assembly, and was created to remedy the inaccessibility of information about goings-on within the assembly.
The GNWT is aware of Open NWT, but has not adopted it or any similarly easy-to-navigate approaches to accessing information. In response to MLAs in the last assembly asking for a NWT lobbyist registry, ministers instead released what appear to be partial lists of their meetings. McLeod himself argued that a lobbyist registry is unnecessary.
Providing information such as who cabinet members are meeting with before they make important social, economic and environmental policy decisions, is exactly the sort of initiative that would create a culture of accountability and openness, acting as powerful checks and balances on our system of consensus government. It would serve to develop trust in and credibility for our cabinet and government.
There are examples of how it can be done that are not complicated. Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary, has instituted a simple and easily accessible web page listing his Expenses, Gifts and Meetings. There are organizations committed to open government; tool kits and discussion papers abound. There are plenty of capable people in every community of the NWT who can contribute ideas and solutions to strengthen a culture of accountability. Establishing a culture of accountability as a keystone operational pillar of the GNWT as a whole will have positive outcomes with respect to building trust, improving relationships with stakeholders, community and indigenous governments, and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of program and service delivery – important considerations in what are expected to be difficult fiscal and economic times in the years ahead.
Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, PhD, has worked as a socio-economic researcher, governance advisor to indigenous organizations and academic for the last two decades. She lives in Yellowknife.