Editorial: Questions remain following YG’s NGO review

Hiding recommendations is being framed as protecting public servants. It also protects the government from eventually having to explain

After some consideration it appears the territorial government may have come to its senses and will be releasing at least some information on a review it completed into non-governmental organizations in the territory.

The Health and Social Services Department assessed 33 not-for-profit organizations and two for-profit organizations which received a total of $15 million annually.

According to deputy minister of health Stephen Samis earlier this month, the goal of the review was to understand who the organizations are serving, what they’re trying to achieve and what their outcomes are.

When reporters — naturally — asked to see a copy, Samis flat out refused.

“We have documentation but it’s not public documentation,” he said

We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but short of a clear, legal, reason to keep something private, all documents created by a public government on how public money is being spent on services for the public are, well, public.

Following one news article and one motion by the Yukon Party, the Liberals now say they will release some of the information.

It should never have gotten that far. If the goal is to truly be transparent, Yukoners shouldn’t have to wait for public pressure to get information out of government officials.

Even with this change of direction, the Liberals stopped short of being completely transparent.

The opposition called for the government to release any recommendations that came out of the review or any talk of cuts to NGOs, but the Liberals used their majority to cut that section out of the motion.

Apparently the government thinks that if recommendations from public servants are made public, then the officials making those recommendations won’t have the courage to be honest with the ministers.

Under the Yukon’s access to information legislation, the information the Liberals cut from the motion may qualify as “advice to a minister” and therefore could potentially be legally redacted, but it doesn’t have to be.

The Liberals could have chosen to release more details about what’s being considered and trust that Yukoners are smart enough and mature enough to understand complex government decisions.

Hiding any recommendations is being framed as a way to protect public servants, but it also protects the government from eventually having to explain what advice it took and what advice it ignored.

To be clear, no one is asking NGOs to release private data that could identify the clients that they serve. That doesn’t benefit anyone. But understanding goals and outcomes when public money is being spent is important.

At a time when some critical NGOs have raised the alarm that they might not be able to keep their doors open without more government money, it is also important for the public to understand what options are being considered and to keep an eye on the government’s decision-making process.

There’s an extra layer of confusion to this story when it comes to how this review of NGOs will be part of the much-trumpeted larger independent review of the Department of Health and Social Services that is coming out next year.

In March, while fielding a barrage of questions from both opposition parties about funding for NGOs, Health Minister Pauline Frost brought up the independent review of the department. “We are conducting a comprehensive health review,” she said. “As part of that review, we are looking at the NGO efficiencies.”

So it came as a surprise when the chair of the department’s review panel, Bruce McLennan, told reporters that he didn’t think the government’s study of NGOs would be something he needed.

Even if the panel chooses to ignore what the government has already studied, a report laying out NGOs’ goals and outcomes would be exactly the kind of thing you’d expect the panel to want to look at if it were tasked with looking at “NGO efficiencies” as defined by the minister.

Yukoners might be understandably nervous about what kind of details we’re actually going to get in the comprehensive review of the health department if the minister and the chair of the panel seem to have different ideas about what is actually supposed to be in the final report.

(AJ)

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