Idea details: Open Information – Openness, Transparency, Accountability

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The Government of Canada will expand the proactive release of information on government activities, programs, policies and services and will work to make government information easier to find and reuse.

Potential activities may include:

  • Launching an online virtual library to provide easy, one-stop access to published federal documents;
  • Declassifying 500,000 documents and publications held by Library and Archives Canada; and
  • Continuing to modernize the administration of Access to Information in the federal government.

Your collaboration will help make this proposed activity become a reality. In addition to your general comments, please let us know:

  • What do you see as the ultimate goal for this proposed activity within a two year span?
  • What are the specific actions and milestones required to meet this goal?
  • Who else should be involved in the implementation of this proposed activity?
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Comments

Monsieur le Ministre,

Je vous écris en prévision de l’élaboration par le Gouvernement du Canada de son plan d'action 2.0 pour l'initiative Partenariat pour un gouvernement transparent (PGT), et à l’aube de la Semaine du droit à l’information.

En tant que Commissaire à l’information du Canada, je recommande, comme je l’ai fait en 2012 et 2013, que le Gouvernement du Canada s’engage à moderniser la Loi sur l’accès à l’information (Loi). Cet engagement essentiel constitue, selon moi, l’engagement qui doit être absolument inclus dans le plan d’action 2.0.

Comme vous le savez, j’appuie entièrement le gouvernement ouvert comme un véhicule permettant une plus grande ouverture, ainsi qu'une responsabilisation et une transparence plus importantes de la part des gouvernements. J’ai, de concert avec mes homologues provinciaux et territoriaux, très tôt défendu les principes du gouvernement ouvert et reconnu son importance pour la démocratie canadienne, comme en témoigne la résolution conjointe sur la transparence gouvernementale de 2010 et la lettre envoyée en janvier 2012 présentant nos recommandations pour le premier plan d'action. Cependant, ces principes ne peuvent être atteints sans une loi sur l’accès à l’information rigoureuse. Le gouvernement reconnaitrait clairement le rôle central du droit à l’information dans l’initiative de gouvernement ouvert en s’engageant à entreprendre une refonte en profondeur de la Loi.

Au soutien de ces efforts, je planifie déposer au Parlement un rapport spécial sur la modernisation de la Loi qui tiendra compte des révisions législatives passées, des normes internationales et de plus de 30 ans d’expérience en enquête.

Selon la recommandation faite par le Dr Mary Francoli dans son Rapport d'étape 2012-13 du Canada, dans le cadre du Système de rapports indépendants du PGT, le gouvernement devrait prioriser le gouvernement ouvert dans son ensemble en lui accordant un soutien politique d'un niveau plus élevé. Lors de sa comparution devant le Comité permanent des opérations gouvernementales et des prévisions budgétaires le 13 mai 2014, la Dr Francoli a fait part de la préoccupation suivante : « c'est que les données ouvertes soient désormais privilégiées aux dépens d'autres aspects relatifs au gouvernement ouvert et d'autres engagements que nous avons pris dans le cadre de notre premier plan d'action du [PGT], envers les Canadiens et sur la scène internationale ».

Il est essentiel pour le gouvernement d’accorder autant d'énergie à l’accès à l'information qu'aux données ouvertes, et à les traiter de la même façon. Autrement, l’initiative du gouvernement ouvert est foncièrement imparfaite. Sans une loi rigoureuse, le gouvernement ne peut rencontrer les objectifs poursuivis de favoriser la transparence et la reddition des comptes.

J’attends de lire avec intérêt le second plan d’action, et de vous faire part de mes commentaires sur ce dernier, en espérant que le Gouvernement du Canada s’engagera à modifier la Loi sur l’accès à l’information.

Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées.

Suzanne Legault
Commissaire à l’information du Canada

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Dear Minister:

I write to you in anticipation of the development of the Government of Canada’s Action Plan 2.0 for the Open Government Partnership initiative (OGP), and on the eve of Right to Know Week.

As Canada’s Information Commissioner, I recommend, as I did in 2012 and 2013, that the Government of Canada commit to modernizing the Access to Information Act (Act). This crucial commitment is the one element that must, in my view, be included in the Action Plan 2.0.

As you know, I fully support open government as a means for greater openness, accountability and transparency of governments. As illustrated in the 2010 Joint Resolution of Information and Privacy Commissioners of Canada on Open Government and the January 2012 letter recommending elements for the 1st action plan, I, along with my provincial and territorial colleagues, were early advocates of open government principles and recognized its value for Canada’s democracy. However, these principles cannot be achieved without a strong access to information law. Undertaking an in-depth reform of the legislation would clearly demonstrate the government’s commitment to the right of access as a central piece of the open government initiative.
To assist the government in this endeavour, I plan to table in Parliament a special report on modernizing the Act, which will take into account previous reviews of the Act, international norms and over 30 years of investigative experience.

As recommended by Dr. Mary Francoli in Canada’s Progress Report 2012-2013 from the Independent Report Mechanism of the OGP, the government should be prioritizing open government as a whole by giving it higher-level political support. During her appearance before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates on May 13, 2014, she stated “that open data is becoming privileged at the expense of other areas of open government and some of the other commitments that we have made in our OGP action plan to the international community and to Canadians.”

Essentially, it is imperative for the government to put the same energy and vision into access to information as it does for open data, otherwise, the open government initiative is fundamentally flawed. Without a strong access law, the government cannot achieve its stated objective to foster transparency and accountability.

I look forward to reading and commenting on the proposed Action Plan 2.0 with the hope that the Government of Canada will commit to reforming the Access to Information Act.

Yours sincerely,

Suzanne Legault
Information Commissioner of Canada

Access to information is a critical component of open government, as reflected in the fact that it is one of the four eligibility criteria for joining the OGP. For all the undeniable benefits of open data, it is not a substitute for an effective mechanism for making requests for information. Journalists, civil society activists and everyday citizens rely on such requests as a vital tool to ensure government accountability, to safeguard their rights and to expose government malfeasance. Governments will work hard to avoid proactively publishing information which exposes fraud or mismanagement, or which is sensitive or embarrassing. As any journalist will tell you, this kind of information can normally only be uncovered through a request for information.

Canada’s Access to Information Act (ATIA) is badly out of date and has not been substantially improved since it was passed over thirty years ago, despite the fact that standards of openness have evolved dramatically since then. For years, CLD has been calling for root and branch reform of Canada’s access to information law. We are not alone in this. Indeed, virtually every major civil society group in the country whose mandate touches on this issue is in agreement on the need for major law reform in this area. As part of the consultation for Canada’s first OGP Action Plan, all of Canada’s information oversight bodies, including the federal Information Commissioner, submitted a joint letter asking the government to reform the ATIA as part of its OGP commitments. Reform of the ATIA was also suggested during the “idea dialogue” of the Action Plan 2.0 consultation, notably by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Rather than pledging to substantially reform the ATIA, Canada’s first Action Plan pledged only to modernise its administration, namely through instituting an online payment and requesting service, standardising the system across public bodies and publishing completed access requests in a searchable format. As the IRM noted in its review, all three of these commitments are unambitious, incremental steps forward. For example, Mexico and the United States have had in place systems to file and pay for requests for information online for years. This approach is not nearly sufficient to provide the kind of substantive improvements Canada’s system needs.

In the proposals for the second Action Plan, the ATIA does not even warrant treatment as an idea, and instead falls under the rather generic idea heading Open Information – Openness, Transparency, Accountability. One of the potential activities listed there is: Continuing to modernize the administration of Access to Information. It is, therefore, clear that the government has once again decided not to engage in reform of the ATIA and, instead, to limit its engagement with Canada’s broken access system to administrative measures, presumably of a limited nature (or they would have been given greater profile among the ideas and activities).

This is a grave mistake. The outdated and insufficient nature of Canada’s legal regime for access to information is, without question, the most serious deficiency in our current open government framework. While administrative improvements are always welcome, they cannot remedy the profound problems with the law. Key existing problems – such as overly expansive exceptions, the lack of binding timelines, limits on the powers and mandate of the Information Commissioner, and the limited scope of the law in terms of its coverage of public institutions – need legislative solutions.

CLD recommends that, rather than merely committing to modernise the administration of the ATIA, the government engage in substantial reform of the law. The proper formula for reform is relatively easy to pinpoint, since for years critics of the law, including successive Canadian Information Commissioners, have pointed to the same problems time and again.

If attempts to improve ATIA are to be limited to matters of administration and implementation, the government should at least make a clear commitment to address the most glaring problems in the system. For example, over-classification and the misuse of exceptions remains a major problem. According to the latest report of Canada’s Information Commissioner, the 2013-2014 cycle saw a 30% increase in complaints, over three-quarters of which were upheld (i.e. found to be meritorious). About 60% of all complaints related to refusals, i.e. substantive rejections of requests as opposed to problems in the processing of requests, many of which were upheld. This is clear evidence that Canada’s public officials need further training in how to properly apply the exceptions within the law and, more broadly, that there is a need for a culture shift away from the current overly-cautious approach to disclosure.

Delays in responding to requests for information are also a major problem. Although comprehensive data on the overall timeliness of responses among Canadian institutions is not available, a recent audit by Newspapers Canada suggests that extensions beyond the law’s 30-day limit have become the norm rather than, as the ATIA mandates, an extraordinary measure. The average response time according to that study was 52 days, and one public body requested an extension of 340 days in response to a relatively straightforward request for briefing notes on the derailment and explosion at Lac Megantic, Quebec. Several other responses in the same study were subjected to extensions of over one hundred days. Clearly these are not earmarks of a system which is functioning well. A number of measures might improve performance here including better record management, an increase in resources to information officers and general steps to enhance the priority of processing requests in a timely fashion.

The government should include concrete goals in the Action Plan to address these problems. In terms of over-classification, one option might be to provide more training to officials on how to apply the exceptions in the law. The development of interpretive tools, such as guides and overviews of decisions in relation to certain types of exceptions, to support officials tasked with interpreting exceptions might be another area of commitment. Another possibility would be to track and publicly report on the use of exceptions by different public bodies, with a view to creating public pressure to avoid relying on a shopping list of possible exceptions when refusing a request.

In terms of timelines, government should set targets for responsiveness (i.e. the Action Plan should set concrete commitments to have public bodies process requests more quickly). For example, it might make a commitment to have at least 80% of all public bodies process at least 80% of all requests within the original 30-day time limit. This could then be passed onto public bodies, who could be required to provide an explanation to Treasury Board if they failed to meet these commitments.

On the proposed declassification programmes, while we support the declassification of more material, it is perhaps surprising that Library and Archives Canada holds at least half a million classified documents. When this point was raised during the 11 September consultation, the Treasury Board representatives were unable to shed light on what this information was and why or how it had been classified in the first place. To accompany the process of declassification, CLD suggests that the government commit to a comprehensive review of the standards and practices regarding classification. In many countries, procedural approaches towards classification help reduce the extent of over classification and substantive rules on what can be classified are also important.

This in an excerpt from our full submission to the Open Government consultation. For the full submission, go to: http://www.law-democracy.org/live/canada-bold-action-needed-on-open-government/.

My biggest concern is the contradiction between the Government of Canada open government/data strategy AND the political gamesmanship coming from the conservative government.

i.e. GOC will declassify 500,000 documents, yet the Conservatives are asking public servants to delete emails and are muzzling scientists.

http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/08/27/harper_government_asks_public_servants_to_delete_emails.html

http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/09/22/new-york-times-criticizes-harper-governments-alleged-muzzling-of-scientists-to-protec...

Being Open is about being clear with your intentions, establishing expectations, and following through on them. Fundamentally, the purpose for being Open is to re-establish trust between people and their government, and I hate saying this...but this contradictory behaviour is not helping.

Transparency on compliance information of federally regulated producers/firms/establishments would help consumers make more socially optimal decisions.

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