11 April 2016

The value of inquiry #nlpoli

Information is good.

Information is the basis of knowledge.

Information is also power.

That's why people who have information don't want others to have it.

The power that comes from knowing is why some politicians, government officials and others, historically, have raised all sorts of objections to laws that allow people to obtain government information.  They like the fact that they have power and they aren't anxious to let others have it
We have heard a lot of that sort of argument since the Telegram started publishing its list.  Unspecified bad things will happen once you put this information in public.  The information is no good unless some expert explains it to everyone so they can know what it means.

The most blatantly elitist argument came from a university professor who isn't on the list herself.  She said the list compiled by the Telegram had no value.   The only list we should trust, the professor argued,  is one compiled by government officials, whenever they get around to it, and after huge amounts of rumination.  She dismissed the Telegram's effort as a "random Google document" made up of a patchwork of information.

Some organizations, like the provincial teachers' union, plan to fight the disclosure in court.  Union president Jim Dinn was on Issues and Answers this week, along with your humble e-scribbler to talk about the controversy.  Dinn said some of his members were concerned about the disclosure.  Dinn said he felt the right way to do this is with a law specifically allowing for the publication of such a list. Dinn was just offering another version of the elitist argument.

There are a couple of things to notice about these two objections.  First, we don't need to have another law.  We have one already.  There is a law that specifically allows for the creation of a list like the one the Telegram compiled.  It's called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  Any person in the province can ask the government for information and, subject to the list of things the access law says they cannot get,  the person has a right to the information.  

Second, neither the teacher nor the professor could offer any indication of how the Telegram's list was inferior to one officially created and handed down on high by experts and with their expert consent.  It should be a pretty easy thing to do.  After all, that's what sound public policy - what the professor mentioned - is built on:  a reasoned argument in favour of a particular point of view,  built on evidence,  facts,  reasons.

"Some people don't like it"  or "there could be mistakes in it"  are not evidence.  They are unsubstantiated opinions.  Point out the mistakes.  Show how the mistakes  - there are bound to be a few - are so great that they demolish the whole project.  Nor is it a valid reason to keep information secret that in a small community some people fundraising for a worthy cause might hit up the teacher for a donation now that they know how much he or she makes.  Dinn actually trotted out that one. Historically, teachers have occupied a privileged and influential position in our communities.  Times haven't changed.  In a small community people know who has money and if a teacher is especially well paid, folks already know who to hit up to buy a bunch of 50/50 tickets.

Since the legislature passed the current access law drafted by the commission without amendment,  it's pretty hard to imagine the courts will side with the teachers' union.  What's more,  the simple practicality of things defeats the idea the teachers' union and others have that we could release the salary or income that goes with each individual public service position but not disclose the names. Someone intent on compiling the list could get the names readily somewhere else and put the two lists together.

That's the sort of simple, obvious point that tells you the folks pushing that idea just haven't thought very much about it until now. They are reacting to a very specific situation that involves them directly.  Oh yes. That's the other characteristic of the outcry since late last week.  Most of the people raising the most noise against the public's right to know are people who are on the list or who have close ties to folks on the list.  They have a personal interest in the issue.

That personal interest doesn't invalidate some of their concerns about the disclosure.  Undoubtedly, some people will look at the list for less than noble reasons.  What those people have to do, though, is explain how the wider public interest must take a back seat to their individual interest.

We cannot keep the names of public servants secret, except in some very limited and specific instances for security reasons.  More to the point, though:  we shouldn't keep them secret.  The prospect that we will see nepotism and cronyism - hiring unqualified friends and relatives - is simply too great if we hide away hiring in the public service.  Position in the public service should be filled by people qualified to do the job and determined to be qualified by a transparent process that treats all applicants fairly and equitably.  You can't do that in secret.

The List has already shown its value and the reason why the public interest has been service by a very limited disclosure of personal information.  We know that the upper reaches of power at the province's energy corporation have a serious gender balance problem.   As the Telegram showed on Saturday,  48 of the top 50 money earners at Nalcor are men.  We didn't need the list to tell us the gender imbalance existed, but with information, we now know just how serious the problem is.  Nalcor has been working to correct the problem.  Twenty-seven (27%) percent of the management positions across the company are now filled by women compared to 14% just five years ago.

The List, as it is,  has also pointed to some other questions.  We have to wonder about the number of people at Nalcor who make very large salaries.  There might be nothing there but it is something to investigate.

Then there is the issue of overtime, which is what helped to propel a number of folks over the $100,000 line.  Their base salary is below the threshold but they pull so much overtime, they can, in some instances, earn twice as much as their base pay.  Do we need more people in those jobs to reduce stress on the people doing double the duty now?  Maybe we do.  Maybe the people qualified to do some of these jobs are in short supply.

At the other end of that scale,  we may want to take a close look at the bonuses and other perks.  They may be justified.  They may be overly generous.  We won;t know unless someone takes a look at them.

Ultimately, the List is just basic information. It's raw data. The data will point us to some conclusions that will, at the very least,  make us better informed.  We will learn things like how many people make more than $100,000 from the public service.  We will find out the wide range of professionals and skilled trades there are serving us every day.

We can compare the Newfoundland and Labrador list to similar lists in other provinces. The Telegram has provided us with links to those lists. We can compare the List to information from Statistics Canada to see all sorts of other things.  How many people in the province earn more than $100,000 a year? How many of those work for the public service?  How many aren't doctors, lawyers, dentists, and veterinarians?

Then we can wonder about the rest of the public service. The province's labour federation is in favour of not just this disclosure but of one that releases the names, positions and salaries of all public servants.  They figure that, among other things, we will see the need for more employees to relieve the overtime burden. That might be true. In other instances, employees might find out if the overtime that is available is being shared equitably.

You see, there is no single "context" that some authority can pronounce as the lone truth for an incomes list or for anything else. We start with a question, in this case, the request for the names, positions and incomes of people working for the government who make more than $100,000 a year.  The answer raises more questions and the answers to those will lead us to more questions.

That's the value of inquiry. Ask a question and you get an answer.  The answer is information.  That answer can lead to more questions and more information.

Information is power.

And you should always inquire when people who have information don't want you to ask questions.