Suzanne Legault is the Information Commissioner of Canada.
Governments create and hold a large amount of information. In a society that runs on information, access to this information is necessary for us to understand how government operates. This also allows us to better understand our democracy and contribute to its economic and social advancement.
This is the premise behind the Open Government movement in which Canada is a vocal proponent. When information is available to citizens, there are more opportunities for new ideas, innovation, better and more responsive decision-making, and even program savings.
It follows, then, that the ability to access relevant and useful government information rests on a modern access to information legislation.
It is in that context that I presented 85 recommendations to Parliament for the modernization of the Access to Information Act.
A modern access law promotes accountability. At present, not all entities that spend taxpayers' money or perform public functions are subject to the Act. Under my recommendations, Canadians would see much broader coverage of the Act, including the Prime Minister's Office, ministers' offices, the institutions that support Parliament and the administration of the courts.
A modern access law is adapted to the current realities and expectations of Canadians. The Act was conceived more than 30 years ago. But is there anything that is changing more rapidly than information – how it is generated, collected, stored, managed and shared? The increasing use of mobile devices by the government, for example, poses new risks to access to information rights. Yet, the Act has not been amended to increase its capacity to appropriately protect these rights. This is why I am recommending a legal duty to document the decision-making process to ensure that official records are created, and a legal duty to report the unauthorised destruction or loss of information.
A modern access to information law strikes the right balance between the public's right to know and the government's need to protect legitimate interests. This exercise is at the core of access to information. When the Act was introduced in Parliament, it was referred to as a law that would open government. After more than 30 years of existence, the record shows that the Act has been, and continues to be, interpreted and applied as a shield against transparency. My recommendations favour a move towards maximizing the disclosure of government information – all government records would be subject to independent review and would be released unless there are very good reasons to limit disclosure. In a revised Act, all exclusions would be eliminated including the one for Cabinet confidences, and there would be clear limits placed on the exemptions that must remain to protect specific types of information. The decision-makers would also have to consider the public interest in the information.
Finally, a modern access law promotes timely and proactive disclosure of information in formats that are readily accessible to the public, strengthens oversight with order-making powers and provides for an effective compliance model.
A modern access law will assist Canadians in exercising their right to know what is happening in government. It will help foster a government culture that is "open by default." Improved access to information will increase government accountability and citizen understanding, stimulate ideas and innovation, and ultimately enhance trust in public officials and institutions.
A modern Access to Information Act is long overdue.