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Transparency should start before decisions are made

Allowing decision-makers to 'think out loud' will help stakeholders to give better input and understand how decisions are made.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been criticized for the government's lack of transparency around arms exports and other areas of its foreign policy. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, left, is currently leading a review of the government's development policy. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The Liberals and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion have found themselves in trouble over a lack of transparency in three foreign policy decisions: weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and Thailand, and a “Joint Action Plan” with Gulf allies. This is in contrast to early pronouncements by the Liberals that openness was going to be a hallmark of their government. While some decisions should not be more transparent, vast areas of foreign policy could be made more open by empowering policy-makers to “think out loud.” Such a culture shift is a long-term project and if the government is serious about transparency, this process needs to begin.

Questions surrounding arms exports and international alliances are probably best settled away from direct public view, or so Dion has been arguing. Likewise, openness is not possible when commercial interests or security concerns are involved. Fair enough, as long as we learn which criteria are used to identify where transparency is not appropriate. In the case of arms exports, for example, it is much easier to be open about criteria that will be applied before a specific export license is considered. Openness is less fraught with risks in earlier stages of decision-making, i.e. when different options under consideration are emerging. Starting negotiations with allies? Give us a sense of why you are entering these negotiations and what options seem likely in such negotiations!

If policy-makers—political and bureaucratic—were to “think out loud” more and at earlier stages, decision-making processes would be much more understandable to the general public as well as interested specialists. As a side benefit, this would also offer the potential for more engagement with stakeholders that will lead to more robust policies.

Such thinking out loud could be initiated in areas that are either of particular interest to the Liberals (rebuilding foreign policy around climate change mitigation, Mr. Dion?), or in areas where the risks are limited or where likely options are publicly known anyway.

Anyone curious about the motivations for negotiations of a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement (FIPA) with Mongolia? You will be surprised to learn that it has been nearing conclusion for some time, even though no one has offered a discussion of motivations or arguments for the FIPA or any alternatives.

Still thinking about opening an embassy in Tehran? Canadian attitudes to the government of Iran are well-known, so tell us what options are being considered seriously and what criteria will be applied in the decision.

It will take time to build habits and platforms for more open discussions. Social media offer many opportunities in this regard. But the sooner the Liberal government initiates such discussions the more credible its efforts at openness will be and the more likely it is to have some visible achievements. The government has an opportunity to leap ahead of allies and other foreign services who are all getting better at announcing decisions via social media and other channels, but who generally have not embraced openness in the policy-making process.

Select areas of foreign policy are ripe for such thinking out loud. As development aid is currently under a general review, this is an area where more discussions of options that are under consideration would be a fundamental and welcome change in the processes associated with and aims of foreign aid. If the International Assistance Review  is reconsidering the notion of a list of countries of focus, for example, what are alternatives? Thinking out loud would give stakeholders an opportunity to comment on these alternatives and to understand how this selection will be made. While International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has offered a “discussion paper” to launch the consultations about foreign aid, the discussion in that paper only amounts to questions. I hope that the consultations will lead to a next stage that will spell out some options under consideration as a basis for further discussion. That would be an open and transparent process. Building such processes would be a real credit to the transparency aspirations of the Liberal government.

Julian Dierkes is an associate professor at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research where he teaches Public Policy and Global Affairs. Follow him @jdierkes

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