The Harper government is setting a deadline of Jan. 1, 2012 for all government departments to start regular online disclosures of what they’ve released under access-to-information laws.
The new system, which Treasury Board President Tony Clement is announcing Wednesday, replaces a highly-cumbersome process in which Canadians have to file access requests just to find out what a department has already released.
Already this year 34 departments are posting this information as part of a government effort called an open-data portal that also includes databases of everything from public service staffing statistics to Canadian radio listening patterns.
“Part of what we are doing is ensuring that information that is released is released as widely as possible,” Mr. Clement said in an interview. “And I think that's part of the accountability function.”
The minister’s embrace of open data doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been a major change in the Conservative government’s tight grip on information. Responses to Access to Information requests regularly take months and documents that are ultimately released are often heavily redacted.
Communications staff in the public service often take days or weeks to answer reporters’ questions – often only by email – while sometimes hinting that ministers’ offices have intervened to limit the amount of information that is released.
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently in the midst of a three-part study of the issue of political interference with Access to Information requests. She released part one of the study earlier this year in a report called “ Interference with Access to Information.”
Ms. Legault’s opening report highlighted gaps in the current legislation.
“Among them is one that limits my ability to ensure that possible offences under the Act are the subject of a criminal investigation by the appropriate authority,” she wrote in March. “To address this and two other outstanding issues, I am recommending, among other things, a review of these sections of the Access to Information Act. Two subsequent reports will address respectively allegations of interference in a broader context at [Public Works and Government Services]and interference as a systemic issue causing delays.”
Mr. Clement acknowledges the criticisms directed at his government when it comes to openness, but says he hopes Wednesday's announcement will serve as a signal to all government officials that the Conservatives are serious about a “culture change” in favour of transparency.
“When you think that the volume of [Access to Information]requests has skyrocketed over the last few years, we are coping reasonably well,” he said. “That is not to say we could not improve and certainly I take those observations and criticisms seriously.”