Raising the Open Government Bar: Changes to Canada’s Access to Information Act
Carleton University undergraduate students in Ottawa, Canada, are studying the link between communication and open government. In the class, the students examine how communication can be used to improve governance and to foster a more collaborative relationship between governments and citizens. This series of blog posts is related to a range of topics concerning the issues that challenge open government. These posts will appear on the OGP blog over the coming weeks. We hope you enjoy them.
What changes Canadians have to look forward to the Access to Information Act.
Following the 2015 Canadian Federal election a new Liberal government was elected into office. Throughout their campaign, the Liberal Party of Canada made many promises to improve the Access to Information Act (see Liberal Party of Canada’s official website). They vowed to do a complete overhaul of the outdated act in order to facilitate a more open and transparent government. The Liberal government has been critical of the previous Conservative government for losing the trust of Canadians, and they hope to restore this trust and faith by revamping the Access to Information Act. The proposed changes are expected to take effect by 2018.
This blog, will address key changes that are expected to modify the Act and the implications to Canadians and open governance. It will also explore the context of the Access to Information Act changes that are being suggested by the new Liberal government. The changes include, eliminating fees for requesters, giving more authority to the Information Commissioner, and making the Prime Minister and Parliamentary offices more transparent and open. These changes have the impacts to Canada’s status as a member in the Open Government Partnership.
To begin, one of the first changes that the new government will implement is the elimination of fees associated with making Access to Information requests, except for a $5 processing fee. The change to eliminate other fees except for the $5 fee does indeed break down barriers to government information. However, this change does not break down all barriers, Access to Information requests are not completely open because of the remaining filing fee. Although, this may not seem like a large sum to pay for information, we must ask ourselves, what is the value of information? Especially since information that the current government is claiming is a fundamental public right.
Another change expected to be implemented is that the Access to Information Act for the first time will be applicable to the Prime Minister’s Office, Parliament and supporting administrative institutions. These changes critically emphasize a government that values transparency, a key principle of open government. This change to the Access to Information Act would push the Canadian government in a giant step towards open by default. Open by default puts the onus on the government to justify why information should not be released, rather than on the citizen to prove why it should be accessible. This change will alter the dynamic of how requests are interpreted and processed; I believe it is a perspective that the Canadian government should have adopted from the initial inception of the Act. Citizens and the government will benefit from this perception by allowing for transparency to be valued.
Authoritative Information Commissioner
In addition, the Liberals have suggested that the Information Commissioner to be able to allow for increased disclosure. This change would give Information Commissioner the power to make binding decisions pertaining to releasing information under the Act, instead of going through the courts. This change would essentially expedite the processing time and be beneficial to requesters. As an individual that has experience working in a Canadian Access to Information office, I have observed that there are different opinions and justifications concerning access to information. I am anxious to see if such new authority for the Information Commissioner will impact the way information is disclosed. Will it be faster, more efficient? Only time will tell.
In conclusion, although the expected changes that the new government has stated are beneficial to Canadians and open government, it leads me to question the extent to which Canada was commitment to open government under previous governments. Outdated regulations limit access to information that should fundamentally be accessible. As it stands, Canada is either playing catch up or it is being left behind when compared to other OGP countries. Regardless, the access to information changes should be implemented sooner rather than later. With that being said, these expected changes have highlighted the room for improvement and in depth analysis of how Canada needs to step up and raise the open government bar.