BC needs more than promises when it comes to accountability

September 27, 2006

“I think legislators made a mistake.” Those are the words of BC’s recently retired Auditor General Wayne Strelioff in his final report. He was referring to the government’s decision to cut his office’s funding at the same time that his list of responsibilities was getting longer. These are strong words, and they should worry all of us who want our provincial government to be accountable and transparent.

Life for any government would be a lot easier if people weren’t looking over its shoulder. But it wouldn’t be very good for democracy. That’s why we have independent public watchdogs like the Auditor General and the Information and Privacy Commissioner. Their job is to make sure we have access to information about what our governments are doing and why. The sad reality, however, is that both lack the resources needed to do it effectively.

Over the last five years, both offices have seen serious budget cuts. And in spite of recent increases, the total amount now going to each office has only just caught up to 2001/02 levels. After taking inflation into account, funding is actually lower today than it was when the government took office.

BC’s support for our public watchdogs is also low compared to other provinces. BC ranks 8th among the provinces on per capita funding for the Auditor General, and 6th out of 8 provinces that have stand-alone Information and Privacy Commissioners. Both Quebec and Alberta, the two provinces closest to us in size, spend more.

At the same time that budgets were cut, the mandates of both offices grew. The Auditor General is now responsible for auditing school districts, colleges and institutes, universities, and health authorities (in addition to the direct public sector and Crown agencies). The government has embarked on complex new financial arrangements, such as the privatization of BC Ferries and BC Rail, P3s (public-private partnerships) and the 2010 Olympics. And the province is using new accounting practices — a positive development, but one that requires more resources.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner has also seen dramatic increases in responsibility. In 2002, for example, new rules were implemented requiring lobbyists to register with the Commissioner. And in 2004, new legislation extended our personal privacy rights to the private sector (governing how companies, non-profits, etc, collect and disclose information about their customers or members). These are both positive changes, but they didn’t come with adequate funding.

Funding isn’t the only problem, however. A lot of government activity is being transferred to the private sector, away from public view. Converting BC Ferries from a Crown corporation to a private agency, for example, took it outside the purview of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. New devices, like “Alternative Service Delivery,” are similarly opaque — an example is the contract with the American company Maximus to manage our health information. The latest public accounts show that the province has committed to $27 billion in long-term contracts for P3s and Alternative Service Delivery.

In his 2002/03 report, the Information and Privacy Commissioner expressed concern that: “The provincial government is pursuing alternative means of delivering services to the public, often by transferring functions to private sector service providers. Alasdair Roberts, Canada’s leading academic in access to information matters, has described this as the growth of ‘shadow government,’ where organizations that do not regard themselves as public or governmental perform what are traditionally public sector functions.”

The Auditor General faces an additional problem. Traditionally, an AG is appointed with unanimous support of both the government and the opposition. Now, the government has broken with tradition to appoint a “temporary” but indefinite Auditor General over the opposition’s objections. At a minimum, this undermines the credibility of the office.

This is an unfortunate record for a government that promised to be the most open and accountable in Canada. There is broad agreement, cutting across the usual political and ideological lines, that the government should rethink its approach.

The people of British Columbia need these two legislative officers to open the doors of government for us. To do this, they both need significant increases in their budgets. And the Auditor General must be appointed not only with the support of the government but also with the support of both sides of the legislature.

As the retiring Auditor General said: “My final observation is that public business should always be public. When officials set out reasons why the public does not need to know…or why making information public is somehow against the public interest, rigorous public scrutiny is almost always even more important.”

Keith Reynolds is the author of “How Does BC Rank on Open and Accountable Government,” published today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He is a CCPA research associate, and a researcher with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. www.policyalternatives.ca.