In my hometown of Ottawa, the municipal government recently decided it was time to build a train system to replace our ailing buses. The trains started running a few years ago. Actually, I should probably say the trains didn’t start running — very well. The entire fiasco has been marred by engineering mistakes and public mismanagement. Ottawans are not proud of their transit system at the moment.
The straw broke when there was a pretty serious derailment last year and the province decided to step in to hold a public inquiry. It’s been nothing if not entertaining over these past three weeks to see all the finger-pointing going on about who is or is not to blame.
In the midst of all this, there’s a privacy issue that has arisen. Well, I guess it’s more a government transparency issue, but there is some relevance for privacy. It became clear that at some point officials within the city stopped using official channels to communicate with one another and instead adopted the use of WhatsApp. Sounds like an effort to avoid accountability, if you ask me. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing. Anyone remember the Somalia Inquiry and the government’s exuberant use of sticky notes, back in the '90s? To make matters worse, when the officials running this public inquiry asked for the WhatsApp messages, there was resistance to handing them over. You know… privacy. Honestly, I don’t see how it’s all that different from how the law should apply to any other tool you may use to communicate work information.
The point is that to build trust, our public institutions must be transparent in the way they run things. They need to adopt tools and processes that are going to respect transparency (and consider privacy on the front end, so it doesn’t end up being the problem). They need to make decisions and stand behind them. Boris Johnson, in the U.K., is learning this the hard way. I wonder what kind of scandal it will take in Canada for us to remember we need to do better here too regarding public sector transparency.
I hope the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario considers investigating city officials’ use of these informal communication tools. More than that, I hope that one day our elected officials and the bureaucrats who support them realize how much they erode public trust when they shy away from transparency.
What do you folks think about the idea of public servants using these kinds of communications tools and then considering the work flowing through them off-limits — because of privacy — to those who would like to know more about their government's activities? What do you think about the idea of using them at all in the workplace: helpful or more trouble than it’s worth? Something to ponder as you read through this week’s news.
Have a great weekend.
If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.