Sunday, November 8, 2009

Democracy, information and public services in BC

I've been reading a book called Democracy: A History, by John Dunn, a British political theorist. It examines how the term (not the practice of) democracy has come to dominate the political landscape, invoked by almost every government as a basis for legitimacy, even if it's farcical (Saddam Hussein's 99% popular votes, for instance). In his conclusion, Dunn touches on an idea that is gaining a lot of ground lately: citizen access to information.

I follow two blogs that address open data and access to government information: and Andrea DiMaio. It's not my issue (hey, Summer?), but I find it interesting to follow. Anyway, John Dunn writes:
"The more governments control what their fellow citizens know the less they can claim the authority of those citizens for how they rule. The more governments withhold information from their fellow citizens the less accountable they are to those who give them their authority."

Recent moves by city and state governments to open their files to the public have been met with enthusiasm (perhaps more than is warranted), and while it's not a panacea to cure our democratic ills, I think it's a step in the right direction. Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation at all levels of government is still problematic, costly and not being addressed in the same fashion. Making trash delivery information accessible, while convenient and useful, is far less important than making important government business open to the citizenry. In that sense, I wonder if a case could be made that the open data movement is a distraction when more important reforms are necessary.

I recently researched how the Liberal government in BC has been supporting legal aid. In 1993 the BC NDP applied the PST to legal fees in order to help pay for the legal aid system. The government grant to legal aid increased to $88.5m in 2001, but was then slashed by about 40% by the Liberals when they formed government in 2002. This year they've cut the legal aid budget twice, forcing the closure of regional offices and staffing and service cuts. Meanwhile, the taxes on legal services in BC kept rolling in. Is there a discrepancy between the amount collected and the amount disbursed by the Liberal government?

To figure this out, I needed access to stats on how much British Columbians (and their businesses) spend on legal services. A study from 2004 put the figure at around $1.4bn; taxes on this were about $100m. About $61m of that made it to legal aid in BC, a pretty clear discrepancy. But I needed more recent stats if I wanted to make a strong case. However, I soon discovered that if I wanted information on money spent on legal services, I would have to pay Statscan a fee to get it. And here I thought that the information would be available to the public. Here is David Eaves on public access to information collected by the Canadian government:
Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III's descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government's data isn't your, mine, or "our" data. It's hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.

Why does she own our information?

This may seem quaint, but it addresses both the approach and the legality of information ownership. The crown literally owns the information. Contrast that with the US, where any information collected by the US government is owned by the people. As David writes: "any document created by the US government [must] be published in the public domain."

I can't get mad at Statscan, though, they're just trying to recoup their costs. I'm sure that they would love to provide access to all the information they have, but they don't have the budget or staff to do so. (I think this is probably true of FOI departments as well, though they have far more political interference in what they can and can't release.)

This is standard across the board (see TransLink, our health-care system, addiction services, affordable housing...). We are underfunding our public services, then complaining when they don't function properly. Hugh Mackenzie at the CCPA recently published an essay asking a simple question: Can we have an adult conversation on taxes?, suggesting that sustained or increasing demand for public services is incompatible with ever-decreasing taxation levels. I would add: Is having the highest child poverty rate in Canada a good trade-off for having the lowest personal taxes? Apparently enough British Columbians believe so (re: provincial general election in May).

I never figured out how much we spend on legal services in BC, but working from estimates and trends in the information I could find, I figure that the BC Liberals are profiting more than $30m every year from the tax on legal services. Meanwhile they slash the legal aid budget, hurting the poorest citizens in BC. I can afford to pay for the information from Statscan, but working families are having trouble housing and feeding themselves.

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