09 April 2016

Sun burn #nlpoli

On Friday morning, Memorial University political scientist Amanda Bittner told a CBC Radio audience that the Telegram’s government-compiled list of public servants making more than $100,000 a year served no useful purpose.

Lists like this are often called "sunshine" lists after the first one, published in Ontario since 1996.

Bittner dismissed the results of a dozen access to information requests as nothing more than a "patchwork" of information in a  “random Google document.”

On Saturday,  the Telegram showed how stunningly wrong Bittner was.

Only four percent of the top earners at the provincial government’s energy corporation are women, according to data supplied to the Telegram by Nalcor.

The raw numbers:  two of the top 50 earners are women.

The Telegram story included a quote from the head of the corporations “Diversity and Inclusion Council.”  Nalcor vice president Jim Keating said he was astounded by two things:  one was the absence of women at the top of the list. 

Keating said that the company had made efforts to increase the number of women in management roles, boosting the percentage to 27 currently from 14% in 2011. They’ll be doing more, setting targets, and posting that information to the company’s website.

The other issue that Keating noted was that so many people on the list weren’t managers.  Some of the people at the top of the Nalcor list got there because they logged significant overtime keeping the energy system running.  He said the situation was typical of electricity companies.

The Telegram’s James McLeod compiled the so-called Sunshine List.  He made public the first returns from the provincial government and some agencies, boards, and government corporations earlier this year. 

Bittner had access to the raw data from McLeod’s research,  something that university academics like Bittner seldom do routinely.  McLeod posted the data from his list to Google docs,  an online information-sharing system.  From her comments, it appears Bittner did not look at the data nor does she apparently understand how government completes access to information requests.

Bittner’s dismissal of research using access to information is bizarre given the prominent role that access requests play in a variety of political science research around the world.   Two of her colleagues,  associate dean of arts Alex Marland and Matthew Kerby – who now teaches in Australia -  used access to information requests as part of their research into how the provincial government officials manage communications and how politicians in the province used open line radio programs for their political communications.

Bittner told CBC that the only reliable information would be compiled by government itself, based on government’s own criteria. According to CBC, Bittner said this is the way “accurate” information would be available. 

The recent review of the province’s access laws showed the extent to which such an approach doesn’t always work.  Bill 29 allowed government to release only the salary range for a given position.  The privacy commissioner told the review commission that using the term “salary range” removed an accountability  mechanism for senior executives who may have perks such as bonuses, severance pay, and vehicle or housing allowances that boost income.

“Salary range” also omitted the impact of overtime for all salary levels, a point not mentioned during the access review but included in McLeod’s data.