Right to Know Week: Ontarians Must Know the Cost of Public Sector Contracts

Oct 02 2015

Commissioner Brian Beamish on the benefits of open contracting:

September 28th marked the beginning of Right to Know Week, which annually raises awareness internationally of the public’s right to access government-held information and highlights the importance of freedom of information legislation to the democratic process. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario is recognizing Right to Know Week by releasing a new guidance document, Open Contracting: Proactive Disclosure of Procurement Records, which calls on governments at all levels to shed greater transparency on how public funds are spent.

In order to be truly accountable and transparent, public sector bodies must commit to proactively publishing contract and procurement information. This simple pledge will bring clarity to government spending and foster greater trust in government stewardship of public money. Despite years of calls from my office for this to happen, many public sector bodies are still not proactively releasing this valuable information. Now is the time to change this practice by building transparency into the process from the beginning of all new procurements.

Openness in government can only be achieved when the business of government is carried out publicly and the decision-making process is transparent and understandable. The ability to hold government accountable relies on the public’s right to access government-held information easily and without resorting to formal processes. The practice of publishing valuable information, including information on contracts that have been entered into by government agencies, should be done in anticipation of the public’s needs. Ontarians have the right to know how contracts are awarded, what goods or services have been contracted for, the costs of the contract and who is responsible for all relevant decisions. Further, the public has a reasonable expectation that this information will be accessible online and easy to find.

The first step to greater transparency is for public sector bodies to make it clear at the beginning of the procurement process that their intention is to make records public. By committing to transparency from the outset, limiting confidentiality to exceptional circumstances and clearly outlining to all parties involved what will be made public, a more open, competitive, fair and effective procurement process will be created. In our experience, the main reason why bidders and contractors do not want information released and challenge disclosure is because they operate under the mistaken belief that the procurement process is predominantly confidential. If this misconception is dispelled and it is clearly communicated what information will be publicly available and when, these objections can be overcome.

I urge all Ontario public sector bodies to commit to the proactive disclosure of their procurement records, particularly the final negotiated contracts. Publishing this information ultimately benefits the public as well as the public bodies themselves.