As an MP, one of my main responsibilities is holding the government to account. Ministers give instructions to their departments, and public servants follow these instructions. I may criticize Ministers when I have good reason to believe they could be doing a better job. I may contact or make requests of public servants, but my role is not to criticize the public service – public servants take their orders from the government of the day and they cannot defend themselves from public criticism.
But I’ve found it very difficult to get access to instructions from ministers to their departments. I need to know what ministers are instructing their departments to do in order to understand the government’s rationale and vision, and decide whether I think they could be improved.
As the Liberal Party’s Science and Technology critic, I am particularly interested in new directions that the National Research Council (NRC) is taking. Below you can see the result of an Access to Information request asking for a copy of the briefing note sent to the President of NRC from the Minister of Industry and the Minister of State for Science and Technology. This briefing note was sent in May 2010 following the current president’s appointment to NRC, and I had hoped that this would be a good way to see how the ministers are directing their department.
Unfortunately, the the letter looked like this:
I’m not sure why this letter is almost entirely censored, but it is very frustrating. What could I do when people came to me with complaints about the changes at NRC? It is not my place to criticize NRC management. Could I criticize the Minister? If I can’t know what instructions the Minister gave to his or her agencies, criticizing the minister is like feeling my way in the dark. It is difficult to do my job properly under such circumstances.
I’ve tried to address this issue in my private member’s bill, Bill C-562, which expands the authority and political independence of the Chief Statistician. It also requires the Minister’s instructions to Statistics Canada to be published in the Canada Gazette. We don’t need Ministers giving out secret instructions to government agencies – we need more transparency so we can sort out what was decided by the civil servant and what was decided by the Minister.
Update: Bill C-562 was updated based on consultations with experts and replaced with Bill C-626 which went on to second reading debate in the 41st parliament.