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Secrecy on big gov't contracts breeds distrust: watchdog

The government's push under Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell to contract out services to companies like Maximus BC Health Inc. has led to a major decrease in transparency, said the head of a watchdog group.

“They're willing to sacrifice public transparency to enter these deals,” said Darrell Evans, the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “You lose the transparency we fought 20 years to get.”

In 2004 the province entered a $340-million, 10-year contract with the new B.C. subsidiary of Virginia-based Maximus Inc. for the company to administer PharmaCare and Medical Service Plan systems. The Tyee reported this week that payments to Maximus have grown by over 20 percent in each of the last two years and appear on track to be 50 percent over budget.

A government official said payments have increased because the contract has been expanded to include more things, but she has not been able to provide details of what was added or at what cost.

“We feel contracts should be public,” said FIPA's Evans. “Your article points up why. It's impossible to know if you're getting value.”

The government entered the Maximus contract at a time when it was signing over $1-billion worth deals with corporations including IBM, Sun Microsystems and EDS Advanced Solutions.

The government should automatically post contracts to a website so anyone who wants to can have a look at what is included and decide for themselves whether taxpayers are getting value for their money, Evans said.

Instead the government has fought releasing details. FIPA filed freedom of information requests for “all the major contracts” the government signed in Campbell's first term, he said. It has yet to gain access to any of them through that process.

Being secretive gives the impression the government has something to hide, he said. “It leads to speculation and uncertainty.” It reduces faith in the government, he said. “You can't trust anyone.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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