Expense data needs context

Kamloops Daily News
November 5, 2012 01:00 AM

Transparency in government is a wonderful, necessary thing. Citizens must know their tax money is well-tended and properly spent and the timely release of financial records - especially related to politicians' spending - is needed to build our confidence.

But what do we make of the appearance of transparency? What is the point of release of data that seems to provide insight into government spending but gives little in the way of meaningful information? At best, it's a waste of time. The cynical among us, however, might suggest such efforts amount to deliberate confuscation.

Last week's release of travel expense figures for B.C.'s MLAs is a good example. A discussion on CBC Kamloops Friday highlighted the issue, suggesting the release of travel expense records provided no context and as a result, offers little insight into whether our MLAs make wise use of public travel dollars. The CBC's Stephen Smart and the Vancouver Sun's Jonathaon Fowlie, guests on the panel, were both critical of the manner in which the data was released, suggesting more detail is needed.

The Daily News reported last week that B.C.'s MLAs spent roughly $1.5 million in travel expenses. Locally, MLAs Terry Lake and Kevin Krueger spent comparable amounts - roughly $25,000 to $30,000 - putting them in the middle of the spending pack.

It's hard to know what to make of the numbers, however, as we have no way of knowing how the money was spent. Did Krueger, for example, make one big trip or many little ones? Did Lake travel first-class or take the bus? Who accompanied them on their travels and where did they go?

We do not suggest either of our MLAs acted inappropriately nor showed anything but respect for the public purse. Both have demonstrated over the years they take the job of representing the public interest seriously. The trouble is, without a detailled breakdown, how are we to know they showed best judgment wherever they went?

Far more enlightening would be complete breakouts of all travel expense claims backed by receipts. Giving taxpayers the ability see precisely how MLAs spend money while on necessary government business would offer a greater level of comfort.

The release of big-picture travel expenses is a good beginning but should not be the end. The public needs full accounting to have the confidence in government the transparent release of data is intended to provide. That means we must see all the little pictures as well.

© Copyright 2015 Kamloops Daily News

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