Is there a line of being “too intrusive” in the arena of government transparency?

As of January 1, hospitals and health networks in Ontario are subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), joining the Ontario colleges, universities, school boards, municipalities and local government bodies which have already been in compliance.

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian has stated in regards to the inclusion of health institutions under FIPPA that “Ontario is the last Canadian province to include hospitals under FOI – this has been a long time coming and represents a major step forward for openness and transparency, leading to greater accountability.”

The salaries of hospital executives who earn more than $100,000 have been disclosed annually since 1996 on Ontario’s Public Sector Salary Disclosure “sunshine list.” However, prior to January 1, details of executive contracts such as benefits, vacation time, retirement packages, and other perks have not been mandatory for public disclosure. Now that hospitals are subject to FIPPA, many hospitals have been proactively posting contract details.  The Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) recommended that member hospitals release executive contracts (as well as board minutes, financial plans, and other documents) online. “When universities became subject to FOI, one of the first things people wanted to see was executive contracts,” said OHA President and CEO Tom Closson.”Rather than waiting for requests to come in one at a time or hospital by hospital — we have 150 hospitals in Ontario — we thought it would make the most sense to proactively disclose these contracts.”

The release of executive contracts has caused some discomfort for hospitals as article after article discusses the necessity of CEO perks such as luxury car leases and cosmetic surgery.  The question of the line between intrusiveness and transparency is a familiar one. In the U.S., Maine Governor Paul LePage has raised concern about overly invasive FOIA requests.  “We have received requests for all grocery receipts from the [governor’s house]. I understand that taxpayers have a legitimate right to know the amount of money being spent in their house, but the intimate details of our diet goes far beyond funds and into the private details of my family’s life.”  LePage calls attention to the idea that sometimes the line where a public official’s taxpayer funded private lifestyle becomes rightful public knowledge can be less than cut and dry.

Chris MacDonald of the Business and Ethics Blog points out that in the Ontario hospital situation, “a perk like membership in an exclusive private club might look odd from the outside, but a moment’s reflection should reveal that an executive who is responsible for massive fundraising efforts genuinely needs to be part of the kind of clubs where he or she can network with the right sorts of people.” It’s possible that public judgment leading to a restriction of CEO perks could limit the ability of hospitals to attract top candidates for the job. However, MacDonald concludes, “of course, if the public has a genuine ‘right to know,’ then that cluelessness is lamentable but not decisive. The public ain’t always right, but it’s always the public.”

Ontario, under the guidance of Privacy Commissioner Cavoukian, has been pushing an agenda in favor of the public’s right to know. Perks such as gym memberships have been banned from Ontario hospital executive contracts since April 1, 2011 and there is currently a freeze on CEO salaries, according to Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews.

The executive contract releases as part of the new age of FIPPA compliance for Ontario hospitals might be intrusive for some, but they provide yet another step in offering visibility into government spending. As Health Minister Matthews stated, “From… transparency comes accountability.” Hanover and District Hospital CEO Katrina Wilson agrees about the benefits of FIPPA, saying, “I can see it being pretty much business as usual…. It’s always good to be above board and transparent.”

Do you think there is a line of being “too intrusive” in the world of government transparency? Let us know your thoughts!