Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

A Closed Government is an Incompetent Government

As big as the F-35 fiasco appears, its true import is bigger. And more worrisome.

To see it, we first need to look at the world of 75 years ago.

In the 1930s, liberal democracies withered while authoritarianism blossomed. And many leading thinkers became convinced that open societies simply couldn't compete.

Open societies have free markets, which means duplication of efforts, failed experiments, and wasted resources. That's inefficient. And democratic governments encourage debate, which means squabbling, delay, and private interests blocking necessary changes. That's ineffective.

Authoritarianism replaced all that with centralization of decision-making, rigid hierarchies, and planning. That meant efficiency. And, when change was necessary, it would be done, swiftly and without complaint. The trains would run on time.

Clearly, a war between liberal democracy and authoritarianism would be no contest. The former would either adapt to the new way of doing things or be crushed.

But it didn't work out that way. In fact, during the Second World War, the liberal democracies outperformed fascist authoritarianism by most measures. And they won the war.

In 1948, Luther Gulick, a highranking official in the Roosevelt administration, wrote a book to explain why. The answer, he decided, was that the supposed strengths of authoritarianism were actually weaknesses and the weaknesses of open societies were strengths.

In authoritarianism, plans "are hatched in secret by partially informed men," Gulick noted. Such plans may contain weaknesses, but those in charge won't know because they're not subjected to broad criticism. "Even the leaders tend to believe their own propaganda; they live in cocoons. All of the stream of authority and information is from the top down."

But in an open society, "the public and the press have no hesitation in observing and criticizing the first evidence of failure once a program has been put into operation." As a result, information is far more widely shared and this ultimately makes actions better informed and more effective.

Canada is an open society. The auditor general's report on the F-35 program, the furious reaction of the opposition, the debate in the media, and the swift government pledge to make changes are all proof of that.

But there are degrees of openness. And, under Stephen Harper's control, Canada's federal government - which has never been as open and transparent as it should be - has become increasingly closed and opaque.

That is why the F-35 program turned into a fiasco. And that is why it's very likely there are more fiascos waiting to be discovered.

Recall that in March 2011, the Parliamentary Budget Officer published a report on the cost of the F-35s that contradicted the cost estimate of the Department of National Defence. The real cost is far higher, the PBO said.

So far, so open. But how did the government react? Peter MacKay, the minister of national defence, could have promised to take a close look at his department's estimate. That's what a minister in an open government would do. But MacKay didn't. Instead, his office immediately dismissed the PBO's report.

And the government went on the offensive, sending out Conservative MP Laurie Hawn - a former fighter pilot - to belittle the PBO's work as "speculative" and "illogical."

Thanks to the auditor general, we now know the Parliamentary Budget Officer was pretty much exactly right, which the government could have figured out last year if it had chosen to think instead of stonewall and attack.

But stonewalling and attacking is what this government does. Some days it seems that's all it knows how to do.

Remember that the PBO report was delivered after MPs had been stymied in their efforts to get proper cost information on the F-35s, crime legislation, and other government plans.

Watching over government spending is Parliament's most basic function in the Westminster system. That's its job. And Parliament is, in theory, supreme. If it wants information on costs, the government has to cough it up.

But this government is obsessed with controlling information and it repeatedly refused to give Parliament what it demanded. Which is flagrantly unconstitutional. The Speaker of the House of Commons said as much when he ruled that the government was in contempt of Parliament.

In response, the government shrugged.

When the government fell on a motion citing it for being in contempt of Parliament, there was an election. The government's refusal to provide Parliament with the cost information it demanded, and the finding of contempt that followed, were the reason for the election, but they were little discussed and quickly forgotten. Apparently, most Canadians didn't care.

So now we have the F-35 fiasco.

The irony is that Stephen Harper came to power promising to make a system that was far too closed and opaque more open and transparent. He created the PBO. He had other good reforms planned.

But the prime minister soon abandoned that effort.

Instead, he further centralized the decision-making process. He hoarded information. He closed information-producing bodies such as the Law Commission. He silenced government scientists and took other steps to ensure nobody in the government spoke publicly except those reading from scripts written in the prime minister's office. And he treated any dissonant statement of any sort, from anyone, as a hostile attack deserving of an even more hostile response: Witness the relentless barrage directed at the PBO.

In this way, Stephen Harper made a government that was far too centralized, closed, and opaque far more centralized, closed, and opaque. And, to the extent he did that, he made it a worse government.

The F-35 fiasco will not be the last.