The Access Conundrum
There is one relatively new, disturbing and also exciting trend in government relations and that is the increasing prevalence of the Access to Information request, as a cornerstone of most government relations initiatives. One questions whether this trend is due to smarter GR and Communications professionals or is it because government simply does not want to generally share information with the public? It is probably a combination of the two perspectives.
Centralization of policy making and control of messaging in government today produces a strong reluctance on the part of public servants to self-initiate disclosure. The difficulty is that if you are not sure whether or not information is public, then as a public servant you have two choices: you can ask for approval or you can withhold. Good public servants would tend to want to disclose in the public interest; however, due to the bottlenecks associated with central control, it is almost impossible to achieve approval for public release. So the alternative is to suggest to information-seekers that they seek the information through an Access to Information request. This provides the legal and communications cover to the officials that really do seek to release the information in the first place.
Access to Information divisions within departments are growing quickly and more and more official time is spent complying with Access requests. Third party Access experts make a living providing expert services and the promise of applicant anonymity.
However, the Access process takes time, patience, sometimes money and is fraught with delays and sometimes important parts of the document are blanked out. The ATI legal and regulatory framework drives the process completely and where “confidential” information is part of the Access request then third parties implicated in this confidential information then get the opportunity to prove that release of this information could be damaging to them. Judicial appeals are possible. At the end of the day, this is not transparent government even though the results can serve narrow self-interest well.
The Access conundrum for GR and Communications Professionals is that you are forced down this path by necessity. You need the information to do your job. Sometimes the Access result means you are the only interest with this information and you can use it to seek advantages over competitors and opponents.
But is the public interest being served? Absolutely not. Government is supposed to be about impartiality, transparency and treating all equally. The new Access to Information trend in government relations and communications is none of the above.