When I found out that Premier Kathleen Wynne was to announce a group to study ways to make the provincial government more open I was pleasantly surprised.
“Halleluiah,” I thought to myself. A more open provincial government is something I used to lobby about on behalf of the community newspaper industry, and now it seemed like the idea had finally got some traction.
The first thing I did upon visiting the initiative’s website was to look at the list of the experts who would be studying this most important of issues. The first one was from a think tank, the next one was Google Canada’s head of public affairs, the third was an open data expert followed by an expert in civic engagement, another expert in civic engagement, a mobile app developer, an ex-provincial cabinet minister, an ex-provincial deputy minister and a university student with a background as a student trustee.
Reading their bios I had no question that they are all intelligent, well-qualified people, but looking over the composition of the group I found a glaring omission: There was not a single journalist among them.
OK, so what’s the big deal? There weren’t any librarians or pharmacists either.
We journalists live and die by our ability to obtain information in a timely manner. We need accurate information to be able to write complete stories that educate our readers — the very people who through their votes decide what direction the province will take in the future. Telling voters what’s really going on is a journalist’s function in a vital democracy.
But it isn’t always easy. Ask anyone who’s ever been a political reporter at any level and they can tell you that getting information from the government isn’t always simple and you sure can’t take it for granted. What is so maddening isn’t that there’s information the government has decided it needs to keep secret, but that there is so much information which is legally public but is either unnecessarily held up by bureaucratic red tape or by someone covering their keister lest they make public something they shouldn’t.
But this panel isn’t just looking at open government. Its mandate also includes studying ways the government can make citizens feel like they’re a greater part of the political process. Here a journalist could also have been of great use. We attend all sorts of public meetings and then report on the results. Journalists also have the advantage of being able to track the same community through all sorts of public consultations over the span of many years or even decades.
True, being involved on this committee might be tricky for a working journalist who could be seen as a tool of the Liberal government, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of well-qualified retired journalists and journalism educators who could have added some much needed and helpful first-hand experience in dealing with the open government.
I did have an informal chat with one of the panel members who did bring my concerns to the secretariat supporting the panel, but was told it’s too late to add another member. However, my comments did put this deficiency on his and the panel’s radar which will hopefully translate into the concerns of journalists being taken seriously in the final report and lead to a more open government for all Ontarians.
— Gordon Cameron is Group Managing Editor of Hamilton Community News.