Trudeau government should make ‘robust’ reforms to info law, report card says

Report conducted as part of the Open Government Partnership’s evaluation scheme

The federal government should make ”robust reforms” to the Access to Information Act to finally bring the law into the 21st century, says an independent report card on Canada’s transparency efforts.

The review released Thursday also calls for specific funding of federal openness commitments, better takeup of advice from interested parties and more co-operation with First Nations on transparency issues.

The report was conducted as part of the Open Government Partnership’s evaluation scheme, which does progress assessments for each of the global partnership’s 75 member governments, including Canada, which began participating in 2011.

Michael Karanicolas, president of the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia, was selected by the partnership to carry out the task for Canada. He held consultations in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, and spoke with officials from 16 government agencies and departments.

The report is intended to help develop Canada’s fourth open government plan under the partnership umbrella.

“There is no question that the landscape for open government in Canada has improved dramatically since the last election,” Karanicolas said.

“However, now that the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, Canada is at a crossroads. There is potential for Canada to establish itself as a global open government leader, but this will require bold and ambitious proposals, rather than more incremental steps forward.”

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Canada made 22 commitments in its third action plan, from increasing digital access to museum collections and scientific data to enhancing openness about government spending.

Progress in some areas has been impressive, such as efforts to make information about Canada’s grants and contributions funding more transparent, Karanicolas says. ”However, consultation with civil society across the country uncovered a widespread feeling that the government could be doing more.”

Although Canada’s latest set of promises mentioned improvements to the Access to Information Act, which gives citizens access to federal files for a $5 fee, ”that appears to have been a false dawn” as substantial reforms were not forthcoming, the report says.

The Trudeau government introduced legislation last June that would give the information commissioner new authority to order the release of files, as well as entrench the practice of routinely releasing records such as briefing notes and expense reports.

The Liberals hail the bill as the first real modernization of the access law since its inception in 1983.

But the commissioner’s office and civil society groups have panned the proposals as too timid, or even a step backwards.

“Access to information is a central pillar of open government, such that Canada’s lack of progress on this critical indicator is beginning to overshadow the excellent work being done elsewhere,” Karanicolas’ report says.

He notes that many studies have drawn similar conclusions about what needs to be done, namely: expanding the right to file access requests to the offices of cabinet and the prime minister; creating a duty for officials to write things down; introducing binding timelines for responding to requests; and narrowing the broad exceptions that allow agencies to withhold information.

In general, civil society groups want assurances the government will actually incorporate their ideas and priorities into the next open government plan, to be finalized later this year, the report says.

Many felt the government entered the last round of consultations “with a fairly clear idea of the commitments they sought to include and, at best, the civil society participants could offer minor tweaks to these plans.”

The report also points out the special sensitivities around Indigenous needs to assert local control over information collected by and about First Nations communities, especially against the backdrop of the broader push for openness in the federal sphere.

Canada has a role in making the case for the benefits of openness, and to help train and equip “open data champions” from First Nations communities with the resources to pursue such policies, the report adds.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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