Access Denied: Open Government

3 minute read

In the latest annual report released by the Information Commissioner of Canada last week to Parliament, concerns regarding the country’s access to information system were brought to light. The report highlights several areas that it says require immediate attention to ensure transparency, accountability, and efficiency in government operations.

Canada’s access to information system is designed to promote openness and provide citizens with the right to access government-held information. However, the Information Commissioner, Caroline Maynard, emphasizes the need for significant improvements in various aspects of the system to fulfill its intended purpose effectively.

Maynard’s report found that there is an increasing backlog of access to information requests. Despite efforts to streamline the process, the number of requests awaiting response continues to grow, causing significant delays in accessing vital information. This backlog limits public scrutiny and many argue it enables the government to govern in secret. 

The report also expresses concerns around the timeliness and completeness of the information provided in response to access requests. It highlights instances where government agencies fail to meet statutory timelines, provide inadequate or incomplete records, or excessively redact information. 

Maynard was also critical about proactive disclosure practices within government departments. The report stresses the importance of making information readily available to the public without requiring formal access requests. While some departments have made progress in this regard, many others lag behind. The Commissioner sees this as an important step towards reducing the volume of requests as the information will already be publicly available. 

In order to rectify these challenges, Maynard recommended increased resources and funding for government agencies to handle access to information requests promptly. As well as providing improved training programs to enhance employees’ understanding of their obligations under the legislation.

The government was quick to respond to the report and say that since taking office in 2015 the access to information process has not only improved but has been supported by historic investment into the Commissioner’s office. According to the government’s records, the Liberals have increased the Commissioner’s budget by 66 percent since taking office. 

At the core of the 2015 Liberal campaign, which saw Justin Trudeau ride into Ottawa on a red wave of excitement and promise of real change, was the idea of open government. Ministers were encouraged to take charge of their departments. Canadians were promised they would be able to have greater visibility into how their government works. 

Since then, the idea of open government has faded as the realities of governing have taken over; so too has the Liberals’ commitment to improving the access to information system. In the eyes of the Commissioner, increasing the funding to her office is only a band aid solution to a much larger problem. 

To fulfill their promise of transparency, it is crucial for the government to take concrete actions to address the concerns highlighted in the Information Commissioner’s report. By strengthening Canada’s access to information system, the government can reinforce public trust, foster transparency, and empower citizens to better understand the work of their government.

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