Emphasis on Open Data Overshadows Access Problems in Canada

24 October 2012

By Ken Rubin

Rubin’s article first appeared Oct. 22 in Hill Times and is reprinted with permission. Rubin’s website is subtitled, “Canada’s Information Warrier.”

Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement is quite happy these days to boast in Parliament and in news releases about bright “open data” prospects while ignoring the increasing “closed records” secrecy practices the Harper government is pursuing.

As Clement stated in the House of Commons on Sept. 25, 2012,“I can say that when it comes to open data, there are over 272,000 data sets online right now at data.gc.ca, where all citizens can access that data, can use it to create new apps for mobile phones, can use it to help their business or their personal lives. That is what we do. We give data to the people of Canada because it is their data.”

That statement came in reply during Question Period to a query from MP Charlie Angus, NDP critic on access to information issues.

Clement is on a mission to promote an instant internet “open data” system derived from the bits and pieces of data sets produced by more than 20 federal agencies that so far does include, at times, some useful partial information on matters like pollution emissions and border wait-times.

Mind you, some critics call his “open government consultations” on “open data” largely a public relations window-dressing effort, diverting attention and resources from implementing truly pro-active disclosure practices and from strengthening the much downgraded Access Act.

Clement in the same Sept. 25, 2012, House of Commons reply confirmed this divide by proclaiming that it was quite alright that “more than 90 per cent of the [formal access to information] requests [are] processed within the government’s 120-day standard.” That’s even though the legal access to information response time is supposed to be only 30 days under Canada’s Access Act.

Clement tends to downplay and avoid the need to fixing the broken-down 30-year-old legal access to information regime that involve many more records than the data sets he is fixated on getting more and more directly into the hands of the public.

Clement would rather not admit to the Harper government’s tendency to having a double standard whereby most of government’s vast amount of operational data is not instantly available or ever given out on crucial issues like food safety and government cutbacks.

Why, one must ask, for example, is Clement’s endless enthusiasm not there for Canadians profiting by instantaneously having access to XL Foods’ daily self-policing “inspection” meat packaging plant reports? Or for the public having day by day access to the government thinking on the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation’s proposed buying into and controlling the Calgary oil sands petroleum producing company Nexen?

Clement has the time of day for those who want to use and manipulate government-offered “open” data sets and he is going across the country asking entrepreneurs to take advantage of such data bases.

But the Harper government prefers to treat formal access users as information blood suckers fishing around for unpublished more sensitive data at great cost to the government. Their information-seeking efforts on matters such as going after the data on unnecessary G8/G20 spending are considered suspect. The access users become the subject of amber alerts, delays, fees, and many secrecy claims and are not greeted with open arms in cross-country speaking tours or in online sessions.

When it comes to reputedly rescuing and improving the much maligned formal access-to-information regime, all Clement currently has come up with and announced is a very feeble “pilot project” whereby only three federal agencies—Citizenship, Treasury Board, and Shared Services—will begin to accept access requests and payments online.

But this is hardly a cause for celebration and, in fact, it will take an extraordinary slow-moving three or four years more, at an unknown enormous cost, to get all federal agencies to do the same small changeover. Meanwhile, this transition will not in any way change the government’s rigid secrecy practices.

Indeed, government officials are not about to admit that this new central access intake and collection online portal could give rise to more, not less, delays in information receipt. It could also be the handy vehicle and occasion for raising access application fees and other charges to which access users would have to pay more to still get limited access to records.

Officials are not talking either as to whether this proposed central on-line portal for access requests could have an even more sinister side, that is, a one-sided gateway making it easier to monitor, track and profile access users and their payments.

The announced central online access request system then is not much of an advance for transparency. It in no way creates a needed more neutral arm’s-length central access administrative authority whose job would be facilitating quickly disclosing information rather than the excessive protection of it.

As it is now, all that access users wanting a much more user-friendly approach get these days, along with their predominantly late and usually censored access responses, is a page insert with the government’s double-speak set of “duty to assist” principles printed on it.

The reality is that the gap between getting “open” data sets and not obtaining meaningful information from formal access-to-information is widening.

Behind that increasing disparity, too, are various policies and strategies that are worrisome and diminishing what public information records is still available for Canadians to access.

These include:

•Pushing the creation of federal records in digital form, only, that helps accelerate the purging and shredding of non-digital public records.

•Changing the mandatory nature of some government record collection, such as was done in only having a 2010 voluntary long-form household census which Statistics Canada has recently indicated has resulted in producing uneven and none-too-reliable information for public use.

•Getting rid of red tape, including enforcement monitoring and regulation information that in turn is resulting in a cutback in public services and availably of kept public records.

•Creating government agency social media sites that limit and control potential interactive dialogue with its citizenry and that stifle opportunities for greater online information explanations.

•Putting legislation into government omnibus bills starting with the Accountability Act, followed by two Budget Implementation Acts where inadequate explanatory and impact information is provided or where adequate debate is possible.

• Reshaping and lessening access to government information by passing bills like the Long Gun Registry Act and then spending public monies to appeal the Quebec Superior Court’s ruling on retention of long-gun registry Quebec data.

• Offering no central government direction from the Prime Minister’s Office that orders misbehaving government agencies like National Defence to create proper record trails and adequately explain defence spending and misspending nor orders that more financial information be publicly released.

• Giving the run-around for months to Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page’s request for basic solid financial data on the impact of government cutbacks on programs and on the bureaucracy. The Tories must by now regret creating the PBO office under the Accountability Act.

Yet, the government has no qualms at harvesting data received from public sources for government PR and political purposes. For instance, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney used his office to recently send out a targeted e-mail to thousands of gay people concerning gay refugees based on a list derived from a 2011 online petition to Citizenship supporting a gay individual facing deportation.

The end justifies the means even if the reuse of gay data violates the allowable consistent uses under the federal Privacy Act, or even if the government destroys the more neutral and rigorous means of census information collection and integrity, or even if it means with less regulation and less records and documentation in health and safety matters, the public is deprived of having meaningful government information that protects their very well-being.

The Harper government’s rush to destroy records has been criticized by many diverse groups that desire better and quicker and inexpensive government information for public and private planning purposes.

What instead exists along with such record destruction and secrecy practices is a unparalleled central code of silence superimposed on government officials trying to do their public service jobs. That has led this past summer to government scientists publicly protesting being gagged.

Those brave enough to speak out about potential government wrong doing who seek whistle blowing protection cannot expect much assistance under the current Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada created under the Accountability Act.

A recent October, 2012 Federal Court decision by Justice Anne Mactavish, for instance, ruled that the government whistle blowing investigative procedures used were unfair and faulty. The Justice ordered the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada to do more than a shoddy investigation and re-investigate two of the reprisal complaints of Charbel El-Helou, who was then director of client services of the Courts Administrative Services.

It is no wonder with such mixed and repressive information practices that Canada’s international access to information ranking is going further downhill. Canada now sits pretty low on the better acts’ rating list at 55 out of the 93 countries now having right to information laws.

This figure is from the latest 2012 international rating report done by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe.

It’s really embarrassing too when five Canadian civil society groups have to go internationally to the UN this fall to make a case and try and get domestic action on official Canadian federal government secrecy and delay practices not being dealt with by the Harper government.

This October, 2012 submission to the UN Human Rights Council on the state of freedom of expression in Canada, including on access to information, was done by the Centre for Law and Democracy, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Lawyers Right Watch (Canada), PEN Canada and the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

Their report indicated that Canada’s right to information has serious time and fee barriers and that most significantly, it has an “overboard regime of exemptions”, with a very weak recognition of the right to information as a human right. The five groups told the UN body that Canada’s Access to Information Act needs significant reform to bring it in line with international access to information standards.

However, leave it to Clement to still be proclaiming that Canada has the best possible open government, with all those data bit sets, even if for most data sought, it’s all too frequently blacked-out information in at least 120 day increments. Yes, Tony, what would it be like for you if your daily endless PR “news” releases from Treasury Board’s media shop went missing, were censored and were delayed from instant release for on average 120 days 90 per cent of the time?

We might have thought Stockwell Day, when he was Canadian Alliance leader in the days before he became a Treasury Board Minister under Stephen Harper was a bit amateurish when during a televised 2000 election debate he held up a hand-made sign denying that any two-tier government plans (in that instance for health care) were in the works.

Well, the Harper government’s sly, underhanded, and persistent implementation of an actual two-tier system in access to information and its dismantling of public records is a reality that cannot be denied.

So, yes, we’re being left with Canadians’ public right to know in an atmospheric free-fall that’s breaking the legal delay and credibility barriers and any sense of a fair and just modern society.

 

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