Time for the government to dispel the information fog

Special to Globe and Mail Update – Web-exclusive comment
January 29, 2008 at 6:56 PM EST

It is often said that “No news is good news.” It is beginning to seem as if the government has added to that adage, “Good news is no news.”

A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail spoke of “the fog that has settled over the [Afghan] detainees”: It was referring to the revelation that Canada had stopped turning over prisoners to the Afghan government in November, but had not disclosed this to Parliament or the public.

Since becoming Information Commissioner a year ago, it is my experience that it is not only the situation with detainees in Afghanistan that has become obscured. Indeed, a fog over information, even when the news is positive, has crept, little by little, over the government’s activities.

As Information Commissioner, my job is to receive and investigate complaints by people who have requested access to information that is under the control of government institutions and are not satisfied with the response they have received. My staff of investigators is kept more than busy responding to these: Our caseload of complaints has doubled in the past year. But providing information in this way, under the Access to Information Act, is not the only, or necessarily the best, way for the government to communicate with its citizens.

Before the Access to Information Act came into force in 1983, people made informal requests for information and the government, under its own initiative, released information in a variety of ways, such as reading rooms, press releases and press conferences. The Act recognizes the value of these alternative methods of obtaining information when it states in subsection 2(2): “This Act is intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for access to government information and is not intended to limit in any way access to the type of government information that is normally available to the general public.” Today, in this 25th anniversary year of the Act, it is beginning to seem as if the Act is the only way to gain access to government-controlled information. This is not how it should be.

And this is not just my opinion. In the report this month of the Independent Panel On Canada’s Future Role In Afghanistan, also known as the Manley report, one of the recommendations is that “the Government should provide the public with franker and more frequent reporting on events in Afghanistan, offering more assessments of Canada’s role and giving greater emphasis to the diplomatic and reconstruction efforts, as well as those of the military.” That is a unanimous recommendation from a distinguished panel that includes former high-ranking government officials.

If the current government were to adopt the same views, and heads of institutions were to order more proactive disclosure, they just might inspire greater trust and confidence in Canadians and encourage them to hold a more positive opinion of their institutions. It is only a matter of leadership and political will.

While it may be explicable, if not laudable, for any government to want to withhold bad news, it is difficult to understand why even good news is not being released. Surely the fact that Canada decided not to turn over any more detainees to the local authorities in Afghanistan, thereby removing the risk of them being tortured, was good news. If even good news is not disseminated, you cannot blame Canadians for wondering how much bad news might be lurking in government records, waiting to be uncovered. It is true that the government should not reveal any information that could bring harm to those who serve in Afghanistan. But if the government’s position is that everything to do with detainees, and much of what pertains to Afghanistan, is a security matter and is secret by definition, then the Access to Information Act recognizes the importance of protecting certain information and contains exemptions that can be used. The role of my office is to ensure that those exemptions are being applied appropriately.

Given that the security of our country is well protected by these exemptions, it is my view that government institutions, such as the Department of National Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to name the most prominent of those that hold the most sensitive and secret information, must be exemplary in the free and voluntary release of other information. They must proactively make available all the information they can that is not sensitive or secret within the terms of the Act’s exemptions. Releasing information only when someone sees fit to make a formal access to information request should not be the norm, but the exception.

In the normal course of events at the Department of National Defence, a summary of the types of information that have been released in response to access requests is made available in reading rooms and on its website. The whole of that information, as well as other information that might be of interest to the public, should also be released in this manner as a matter of course. The previous government ordered this to be done for certain types of records, such as travel and hospitality expenses, contracts awarded, reclassification of positions, and grant and contribution awards. This is a good start, but much more remains of interest to Canadians that is hidden from easy view, when disclosure should be the norm.

Transparency has become the buzzword of the moment in government. It is time to make it a priority and a reality. The Manley report is such an opportunity. It would be a shame to relegate it to the fog of obscurity.

Robert Marleau is the Information Commissioner of Canada.

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