Louis Sebert: Update on Advancing Government Openness and Transparency

Mr. Speaker, openness and transparency are fundamental principles of democracy that contribute to government accountability.

These principles underpin our debates and discussions here in this House, where government plans, policies and budgets are presented for examination and approval by the public’s elected representatives. Every day during Session, Members ask Ministers to explain government proposals, decisions and actions in a public forum open to anybody who wants to attend or watch our proceedings on television.

We see the commitment to openness and transparency in the Guiding Principles for Consensus Government in the Northwest Territories, which state that the business of consensus government should be carried out in public, and that public meetings should be the rule, not the exception.

We also see it in the GNWT’s Communications Policy and its requirements that we:

  • ensure that the public is informed about government policies, activities, initiatives and programs and services;
  • take public concerns and views into account in establishing priorities, developing policies and implementing programs; and
  • ensure that the government is visible, accessible and answerable to the public it serves.

Yet, while openness and transparency have always been important principles for the Legislative Assembly and the Government of the Northwest Territories, we recognize that policies and procedures need to evolve over time to keep up with changing expectations.

During the last two Assemblies, for instance, MLAs adopted increasingly public and transparent processes for setting priorities and choosing the Premier and Members of the Executive Council.

During his candidacy speech, the Premier made several commitments around improved openness and transparency, including the commitment to hold meetings with Cabinet in NWT regions and naming a Minister to take the lead on developing an open government policy.

In its mandate, the Government of the Northwest Territories made several commitments responding to the Legislative Assembly priority of improving accountability, transparency and collaboration, including:

  • maximizing citizens’ ability to access government;
  • establishing an Open Government Policy;
  • improving public visibility and accessibility of Cabinet;
  • improving opportunities for meaningful public input into government decision-making;
  • making residents aware of mechanisms to appeal government decisions;
  • improving awareness of government programs and services; and
  • developing Ombudsman legislation.

The Premier’s mandate letter to me as Minister of Public Engagement and Transparency instructed me to:

  • establish an Open Government Policy;
  • publish an Open and Accountable Government document;
  • advance the principles of open data;
  • enhance awareness about how to access GNWT programs and services;
  • enhance awareness about how to serve on territorial boards and agencies;
  • promote gender equity on boards and agencies;
  • identify standards for public engagement;
  • promote awareness about information government accountability;
  • support the review of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act; and
  • develop Ombudsman legislation.

Today, I’d like to update Members on some of the progress that the Government of the Northwest Territories has already made to improve its openness and transparency.

In response to a commitment made by the Premier in his candidacy speech in the Territorial Leadership Committee and repeated in the GNWT mandate, we are improving the visibility and accessibility of Cabinet through regional open houses.

Over the past several months, Cabinet has held open houses in five communities: Inuvik, Norman Wells, Hay River, Fort Simpson and Yellowknife. We are currently making plans for an open house in Behchoko and the Premier has also committed to a second round of open houses in Fort Smith and some of the smaller communities in each region.

In response to our commitment in the GNWT mandate, we also held a meeting of the Economy and Environment Committee of Cabinet in public and are planning meetings in public for other Cabinet Committees in the new year.

To help improve public understanding of Cabinet’s role in the consensus system and how it makes decisions, we have published on the GNWT website all of the ministerial mandate letters issued by the Premier. We have also published the Members of the Executive Council Handbook and the terms of reference for each Committee of Cabinet.

To advance the GNWT commitment to establish an Open Government Policy, I will begin public engagement sessions to ask NWT residents what open government means to them, what kind of information they want from their government and how they would like to access it.

We expect to hold public sessions in at least 14 communities across the Northwest Territories, and are also looking at some targeted sessions for selected stakeholders, including media. I look forward to updating Members on our public engagement sometime during the next sitting of the Legislative Assembly.

To promote awareness about information on government accountability, the government is launching a new mandate reporting website later today. This website will allow any member of the public to quickly find out what progress the GNWT has made on each of its mandate commitments. Citizens will be able to see milestones for each commitment, quickly gauge progress, and drill down for more detailed information.

We are also making progress as a government in expanding the volume and accessibility of government data available to citizens. These initiatives include a new public board appointments website with searchable vacancy data that will be launched in the coming weeks.

We will also be launching a new website for reporting on Ministers’ travel and on meetings between Ministers and outside parties. Instead of quarterly PDF reports, information will now be sortable online and published monthly. We expect to go live with this website within the month.

To improve the accessibility of information that we were already publishing, we are planning to publish data on government sole source contracts in an open data format. We will also be making the GNWT’s Contracts Over $5000 report available in an open data format.

Mr. Speaker, improving government openness and transparency is a responsibility that all Ministers share. While the Premier has assigned specific tasks to me, all Ministers are responsible for taking steps within their departments to live up to the government’s obligations and the expectations of our residents. I look forward to updating Members again on our work in this area in the next sitting.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.