Lack of transparency hurts innovation

For all the talk of an information society, our federal government is an extraordinarily secretive organization. It seems dedicated to providing as little information as possible to Canadians on how their tax dollars are spent or on how spending priorities are chosen and investment decisions made.

For all the talk of an information society, our federal government is an extraordinarily secretive organization. It seems dedicated to providing as little information as possible to Canadians on how their tax dollars are spent or on how spending priorities are chosen and investment decisions made.

Science and technology policy — how to make Canada an innovation nation with good jobs and prosperity — provides a good example of where decisions and spending are shrouded in secrecy. Yet this is about our future jobs and prosperity. If we are to succeed we need open government and broad public discussion. We need transparency, not secrecy.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Council, a federal advisory body which was created by the Harper government in 2007, has just published its 2010 report on Canada’s progress in science, technology and innovation. The report, though, is largely a repackaging of previously published information from Statistics Canada, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other statistical agencies and could easily have been produced by a couple of trained economists. We didn’t need a council for this.

The principal role of the council is to advise the cabinet. But does it give good advice or bad? Is it dealing with the right issues? Does it meet often or is it a largely an occasional gabfest? We have no way of knowing because the council meets in secret, advises the government in secret, and comes to conclusions in secret.

This is in sharp contrast to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology in the United States, which conducts and publishes high-quality studies, with recommendations, on areas where the President has asked for advice. The most recent example is the council’s just published report on advanced manufacturing.

Not only that. The dates of council meetings and its agendas are published, and presentations to the council are on its website. The council also holds live webcast discussions which allow for American to participate in its work. Last year, for example, it held a live webcast on “what are the critical infrastructures that only government can help provide that are needed to enable creation of new biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology products and innovations that will lead to new jobs and greater GDP.”

At the cabinet level, the U.S. has a National Science and Technology Council that sets national goals for U.S. science and technology policy and coordinates policy across the many U.S. government departments and agencies. It also makes some of its work public, including reports on a materials genome initiative, a 21st century electricity grid, and an open government initiative.

Moreover, unlike Canada, the U.S. government publishes a comprehensive outline of its government-wide science and technology spending plans as part of its annual budget process, along with a discussion of priorities and strategy. No equivalent presentation is available from our government.

For an effective science and technology policy, we need much greater transparency, which should be simple with the Web. This mania for secrecy in Ottawa is not just a Conservative failing. The Liberals have not been much better. Take science advice.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1987 created the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology and chaired its meetings. The board published detailed reports and analyses on Canada’s science and technology strengths and weaknesses for informed public discussion. Mulroney took the advisory board seriously, though later, in 1993, he abolished the Science Council of Canada.

When he became Prime Minister, Jean Chretien replaced the National Advisory Board in 1995 with the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology. But it reported to the government in secret. In turn, Prime Minister Stephen Harper abolished this committee and in 2007 replaced it with the also-secret Science, Technology and Innovation Council.

While Prime Minister, Paul Martin did create in 2005 the independent Council of Canadian Academies which publishes reports on science and technology issues and policies.

For example, in 2009, it published a major report on Canada’s poor innovation performance by the business sector. It has now examining the state of science and technology in Canada. But it is not part of government.

Ottawa’s mania for secrecy rather than transparency does the country a great disservice. We need engaged public policy discussion that draws on the collective knowledge, experience and ideas of Canadians which should mean better policies. This applies to every area of public policy.

The next Auditor-General could help by making transparency in government one of his/her priorities.

David Crane can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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