Access to information: Government should be open, by default

Posted on in Governance Policy Context

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Globe Debate/Editorials
Dec. 07, 2015.   Editorial

It’s become something of a stock promise from those running for office: Vote for us, and we’ll yank back the curtains and let the sun shine in. Stephen Harper said as much before coming to power in 2006, but was soon ignoring his own advice.

In opposition, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau advocated a government that is “open by default.” The idea is entirely right. And now it’s time to deliver. A recent report from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault suggests it won’t be easy.

For example, the number of official complaints about the lack of government transparency shot up by 30 per cent in 2013-14. Ms. Legault also says it’s taking longer than ever for most departments to process requests. And when responses are forthcoming, the norm is to release only partial information. Full disclosure happens in only a tiny minority of cases.

In 2002-03, nearly 70 per cent of all access requests were processed within the 30 days prescribed by Canada’s Access to Information legislation. A decade later, and excluding the Immigration ministry and Canada Border Services Agency – whose high volume skews the average – that figure has fallen to roughly 50 per cent.

What’s more, the departmental laggards – a list including the RCMP, Global Affairs and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – are apparently getting worse. Contact any of those bodies in search of records, and there’s a decent chance you’ll wait six months or more for a response.

Some of it has to do with bureaucrats becoming snowed under by a growing pile of requests. But it’s also true that “secret” and “confidential” stamps are cheap, especially in official Ottawa. That has to change. Documents created for the purposes of governmental administration are public property; the onus should be on government to justify keeping them under lock and key.

It’s easier than ever to produce documents, record them for posterity and make them instantly available to everyone, online. No access to information request should be needed.

That bias toward openness must become the default position for federal government data, documents and information. Mr. Trudeau has an opportunity to reverse decades’ worth of mounting government secrecy with a simple phrase: If in doubt, make it public.

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