Transparency leads to better communities

Post Date: Wednesday, September 28, 2011
It's Right to Know Week in Canada. This article appeared on The City of Calgary's webpage celebrating this important week.

When did governments become movie-quality bad guys? I believe this stems from an old practice of closed-door politics—of politicians and bureaucracies governing within seemingly-impenetrable mini-fortresses. As citizens, often our only connection to government might be the time we take to vote every few years and what we hear about government through the media, which is usually only half the story.

Clearly if that is Citizens’ only connection to government then our democracy is just a shadow. No wonder citizen cynicism has become so high and our voter turnout has dropped so low.

Fortunately, progressive politicians and administrators know that our democracy hinges on the open and transparent government. For the past three decades, citizen access to information has improved significantly. Legislation in countries and provinces has made getting the information citizens need and want to know easier. 

This is all based on a principal that has become a modern right of citizenship: A right to know.

Every citizen has the right to request access to government records and view their private information. This is a right preserved through various federal, provincial and territorial laws across Canada. Almost every jurisdiction (including Calgary) has dedicated professionals responsible for getting information to every citizen who asks. 

The result is greater government accountability and transparency. Governments become better once the curtains are drawn back and the doors opened.

But to have a right to know is not enough. It has not killed criticism nor completely restored faith in our governments. Rather, we need to reframe our right as something much more active.

It is our responsibility to know. And it is our responsibility to act on that knowledge. Our communities are made better through the actions of engaged citizens who have taken this responsibility to heart. These same citizens refuse to be cynical about government because they know they can make a difference just as much as any politician.

That is what we must celebrate during Right to Know week. The actions of citizens to make their street, community, and city a better place to live and work are the true great outcomes from access to information legislation.

This week also reminds politicians, including me, of our joint responsibility to ensure our own accountability and accessibility. We cannot let only legislation be the way citizens collect information about their government. Instead, we must commit to sharing more than what is “required”—we must take our own action to explain our decisions, provide background information, and let citizens into government.

Our right to know is so important—our responsibility to know and act is amazing.

- Mayor Naheed Nenshi