A New (Old) Wave of Transparency?

We are seeing what appears to be a new wave of transparency in Canada. As Professor Mary Francoli recently said upon the release of her latest progress report on the government’s open government action plan, we are at an “interesting crossroads when it comes to open government.” The new government is committed to an accountable government that is “open by default.” At the same time, even within government there is a recognition that greater transparency will require a “cultural change” which will take some time and effort.

In the past, I have echoed these sentiments, particularly in my report on modernizing the Access to Information Act. The recommendations that I have provided are aimed at strengthening information management, ensuring timeliness, aligning the Act with open government initiatives, and providing a framework for proper and independent oversight – each of these elements would help foster a more open government. But as many ways as there are to promote transparency, there are just as many to avoid it. Even a modern and progressive Act will not be enough without a real cultural shift.

For me, the current transparency wave that we are seeing is not something entirely new – rather, it is an attempt to restore principles that were foundational to our democracy. This new wave is part of an older wave that began a long time ago. In fact, when the Act was first drafted in 1982, there was already a presumption of openness underlying it.

An excellent example of an inherent culture of openness is provided by public servants in Sweden, who this year are celebrating the 250th anniversary of their freedom of information legislation, which was the world’s first FOI law:

A transparent government is conducive for democracy. It is a pre-condition for political processes and it is something that we embrace and support very strongly in Sweden”. Per Sjögren, Ambassador for Sweden to Canada.

Here in Canada, Don Lenihan and I have written about the need for an integrated vision of open government. A culture of openness can prevail if the principle of open by default extends beyond data to include information and dialogue.

In speaking about a Canadian vision of Open Government, Don Lenihan says We defined Open Government in terms of three streams: Open Data, Open Dialogue and Open Information. […] We not only need to make data available or information, we need to be good at dialogue”

While a change of culture is needed within government, all Canadians have a role to play in ensuring that transformation occurs. This begins with holding public discourse to a higher standard – one that does not trivialize complex issues, but rather demands real accountability through open information and dialogue.

The new wave of transparency in government is a sure and positive sign, but those of us in the access community recognize that it needs to be part of a larger wave that goes back to the roots of our democracy. Both carry the same message: government must be accountable, and the only way to ensure accountability is to provide useful information in a timely manner to allow for meaningful democratic participation.


Share your thoughts about how to transform the culture of openness and transparency in the comments section below.

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An Opportunity to Lead: Duty to Document

Access to information relies on good recordkeeping and information management practices. When records are not created or appropriately preserved to document decisions, rights under the Access to Information Act are denied. This, in turn, prevents government accountability and transparency.

It used to be that keeping records was as simple as storing notes in a filing cabinet. But in today’s world, none of us is immune to the new world order of information, not even governments. Today, the sheer speed and volume of information being created presents a constant challenge. Technology both aids and hinders our ability to preserve information. And in the ever-accelerating information landscape, the responsibility for creating and preserving government records has become a real issue. In 2013, for example, I released a special report on the use of instant messaging by government employees, in which I concluded that the use of PIN to PIN Blackberry messaging constitutes a real threat to access to information rights.

Recently, we’ve seen some high-profile examples of failure in the duty to document, whether it be the so-called “triple delete” scandal in British Columbia or the criminal charges related to gas-plants in Ontario. With ever greater frequency, I’m asked to investigate complaints about requests for records that should exist, but for some reason, do not.

Earlier this year, my provincial and territorial counterparts across Canada collaborated on a joint resolution to address precisely this issue. As a collective, we called on our respective governments to create a legislated duty to document deliberations, actions and decisions, with enforcement provisions to ensure that Canadians’ right of access to public records remains meaningful and effective. I also made specific recommendations on this issue in my report on modernizing the Act.

A legislated duty to document, with sanctions for non-compliance, protects access to information rights by:

  • Creating official records;
  • Facilitating better governance;
  • Increasing accountability; and
  • Ensuring a historical legacy of government decisions.

For Canada, this challenge presents a real opportunity – an opportunity to lead by example. If the government wants to arrive at open and accountable government, then this is the way forward.

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A Time For Openness

A new year brings with it new possibilities. This year, the stars are aligning. This is the year for a renewed commitment to transparency in government. This is the year for access to information.

Here in Canada, we have a newly-elected government that has promised to “set a higher bar for openness and transparency.” In part, this will be achieved through a much-needed review of the Access to Information Act towards modernizing it to meet today’s progressive norms.

But it’s not just in Canada that we’re seeing promising developments. In 2016, access to information will be celebrated worldwide. September 28 is already recognized internationally as Right to Know Day, but UNESCO recently voted to add the further designation of “International Day for the Universal Access to Information.” And this year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day, which occurs on May 3rd, is: This is your right! Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms.


2016 also marks the 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of information law, which was passed in Sweden and Finland in 1766. It was in that year that legislators first recognized the fundamental role that freedom of information plays in a democratic society.

What is this role, and why is it so vital and essential for us all?

Freedom of information – or access to information, as we call it at the federal level in Canada – recognizes the right of citizens to access government information. In 1983, when the Access to Information Act came into force, there were only a handful of global freedom of information laws. In today’s world, openness and transparency have become accepted norms.

Today, we have over 100 access laws around the world. Through our computers, by virtue of our smartphones and tablets, we have at our fingertips access to vast amounts of information. Public information should be no different. It is like the source code of government – it allows us to see behind the curtain; to understand how our government really functions, to get informed and to get involved. It allows us to hold our government to account for its actions and decisions.

Over the past year alone, access to information was implicated in a wide array of matters of public interest, ranging from Senators’ expenses to funding for an environmental organization, to the long-gun registry, even the vandalism of mailboxes. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, which has declared access to information a quasi-constitutional right, citizens must have access to “the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.”

Striking the Right Balance for Transparency - report cover

Over the course of my mandate as Information Commissioner of Canada, I have documented multiple challenges and deficiencies with our current law. As it stands, the Act encourages a culture of delay in providing responses to citizens and is too often applied to deny disclosure. It acts as a shield against transparency. I have recently proposed a comprehensive reform of our Access to Information Act to:

  • Deal with the current realities and expectations of Canadians;
  • Simplify the administration and the application of the Act by focusing only on the interests that legitimately require protection;
  • Increase timeliness in the processing of access requests;
  • Permanently resolve recurring issues;
  • Align the Act with the most progressive and strongest laws in Canada and abroad; and
  • Maximize disclosure in line with a culture of openness “by default.”

The government announced in the mandate letters that it will conduct a review of the Access to Information Act.

It is time for Canadians to become engaged. It is time for each of us to get involved in our democracy. Without access to information, transparency and accountability cannot be achieved.

A new year brings with it new possibilities, and it is up to each of us to ensure that our information rights strike the right balance for transparency.


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