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Govt Transparency A Necessity Not A Luxury, Ombudsmen Told

Media release

November 16, 2012

Government Transparency A Necessity Not A Luxury, Ombudsmen Told

A Canadian law professor says governments are using the current austerity as an excuse to limit openness and transparency.

Professor Alasdair Roberts, Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, the United States, is a speaker at the 10th World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute which is being held in Wellington.

He says the natural impulse for leaders in a time of austerity is to say transparency is a luxury. It is a common problem around the world and has been for some years.

"Government can harm openness by cutting the budget available for the administration of open government laws and by changing the public sector in ways that undermine transparency, for example by privatising functions."

Professor Roberts says one habit of government is to remove functions from the operations of laws like the Official Information Act, which means that people don't have access to information about important public bodies they once had.

"Transparency is very important. It is important to make government work well and it is important for maintaining accountability.

"Political executives and senior public servants very often don't like transparency because it makes life more difficult for them and sometimes they will seize on austerity as an excuse to limit transparency -- that's something we have to watch for."

He says governments might argue they don’t have time for transparency because they have get on with the hard work of making government work better and cost less.

"But the question might well be, how will the rest of us know that they have got on with the difficult work of making the government work better and cost less if we don't have those transparency tools available to us anymore?

"Transparency is an essential tool for holding governments accountable and for making sure they are doing what they said they were going to do. And that is just as true in bad times as it is in good times."

Professor Roberts says the crisis itself a failure of transparency.
"Around the world we are seeing two crises right now - a financial crisis, followed in many countries by a debt crisis, where mounting government debt is driving austerity.
And in both of those cases you can say that these crises came about by a lack of transparency -- people did not really know what was going on."

He says in the private sector, home owners were borrowing money without understanding the terms of the contract and financial institutions and credit agencies were doing complicated manoeuvres they did not really understand either.

"With the debt crisis, we have seen many governments around the world only now conceding that their liabilities in good times were actually much greater than they were telling people. They were either ignorant of their actual fiscal position or deliberately misleading on their position," Professor Roberts says.

The Office of Ombudsman and other organisations interested in transparency must make the counter-argument that transparency in difficult times is a necessity and should not be regarded as a luxury.

"Governments are going to be making tough choices that affect large numbers of people and the public need to know how those decisions were made and why they were made the way they were. The way we assure the public that things are being done properly is by preserving transparency in government.

"The job of making sure we take transparency seriously needs to be shared not just by ombudsman but by parliamentarians, by members of the media, by civil society and interested organisations. We all have a joint interest in making sure these accountability mechanisms remain healthy.

“If we don't, you will see decisions that don't have the popular support they might because people don’t understand how they were made. You will also see decisions that were made badly because people don't have the opportunity to scrutinise those decisions and have input," he says.


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