Canada’s national security and intelligence community does not have a strong record in meeting the highest standards of transparency, despite recent improvements. This has important consequence because a lack of transparency makes it difficult for Canadians to hold the government to account; it increases the risk of government abuse or corruption; and it erodes public trust in government.
It is in this context that the National Security Transparency Advisory Group was established in 2019 as part of a series of broader reforms to the country’s national security and intelligence architecture. The NS-TAG – composed of 11 members with diverse backgrounds from academia, civil society and retired public servants – is an external advisory group providing advice to the deputy minister of public safety (and to other national security departments and agencies) on how to improve transparency. The group, which we co-chair, also aims to increase public awareness, engagement and access to national security information.
The NS-TAG’s first report, published in 2020, provided a survey of the state of transparency in Canada’s national security community and highlighted areas for future improvement. The group’s recently released second report lays out general principles related to the definition, measurement and institutionalization of transparency in the national security and intelligence realm. Indeed, for greater transparency to be sustainable, it must be routinized; structures and processes must be put in place to define, measure and then “hardwire” transparency into the national security community’s everyday work.
Improving transparency in Canada’s national security and intelligence community
Through virtual meetings over the past 12 months, the NS-TAG consulted extensively in preparing this report. We heard that the lack of transparency in national security is felt across many sectors. Journalists noted that they struggle to provide reliable information on national security, notably because of a dysfunctional access-to-information system. Many citizens mistrust national security institutions and feel that they are unable to benefit from their democratic rights to the fullest extent. The work of the national security community also suffers as it struggles to effectively engage with citizens. Weakened democratic health invariably results from a poorer flow of competing ideas.
First, the report recommends that departments and agencies in the federal government with national security responsibilities develop and release a clear statement in which they express their commitment to greater transparency. This statement should represent a commitment to transparency and an articulation of the department’s or the agency’s interpretation of what transparency means, why it is important and how it will be measured and implemented.
In doing so, we suggest that narrow and passive definitions of transparency – which simply equate it with the release of information – be abandoned. Instead, we encourage the community to adopt broader and more dynamic interpretations that also emphasize bolstering citizen engagement and government responsiveness.
Measurement is equally essential: research and experience confirm that what gets measured matters in determining decisions and tracking impacts. Moreover, recent government reforms tied to open government and results-based management underscore the importance of providing clear indicators of performance goals.
Second, the NS-TAG recommends that departments and agencies with national security responsibilities also develop and release metrics to measure and evaluate the implementation of their transparency commitment.
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Without a clear process to measure transparency, it is difficult to assess whether commitments to become more transparent have been fulfilled. Indeed, the act of measuring transparency is itself a step toward transparency. This should involve the development of specific indicators, including data about complaints and investigations (and specific outcomes from resolved disputes or litigation); disaggregated data on diversity, including race, in individual departments and agencies; better information about cybersecurity threat assessments and potential privacy breaches; more information on the use of emerging technologies (notably artificial intelligence systems) for national security purposes; and much more declassification of historical information and documents.
Third, we recommend in our report that the national security and intelligence community work to institutionalize its initiatives to enhance transparency because this is the only way to make them more durable.
Institutionalizing transparency requires cultural change: mindsets that have traditionally privileged the hoarding of information as the default posture must evolve. The institutionalization of transparency also needs to be championed from the top. Among other things, the report suggests that the public service consider including a transparency commitment in performance agreements, which lays out objectives for the year ahead for each deputy minister or head of agency in the national security community.
Transparency is not just about releasing information; it is also about engagement with the public. There is, as such, a need for more interaction, dialogue and consultation with civil society, media, academia and businesses. Yet national security and intelligence personnel often do not have the necessary tools to implement initiatives to enhance transparency. The report therefore suggests that the community adopt a greater commitment to training on transparency.
This emphasis on consultation and engagement is essential to institutionalize transparency in meaningful ways. It also requires cultural and structural reforms to the governance of national security. The NS-TAG therefore encourages the national security community to develop a common understanding around the purpose of community engagement and its importance in enhancing transparency and building trust, while investing more resources to better train and equip inexperienced personnel with community engagement.
Community engagement initiatives are essential anchors to institutionalize and implement greater transparency. At the centre of this responsibility is the national security community’s willingness to build its own capacity for engaging with Indigenous, racialized, marginalized and other minority communities. As such, we suggest that the security and intelligence community improve its capacity to practise meaningful engagement with these groups.
Building such institutions is an essential step, but so is assuring visibility around these efforts. Communicating effectively is an important part of carrying out this responsibility. The report therefore recommends that national security institutions develop practical strategies to better communicate their efforts, not only with the general public but also with the communities where a lack of transparency contributes to mistrust. This is especially important in the security community’s relations with minority, racialized and vulnerable communities – that is, in fact, the topic of the NS-TAG’s third report, on which we are currently working.