Canada’s access-to-information system has worsened under Trudeau government: report

Hopefully, this report will provoke some attention:

Canada’s access-to-information system has only gotten worse under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, and a new Liberal bill intended to fix the problems has “worrisome” elements, a new report has found.

A freedom-of-information audit from News Media Canada, a national association representing the Canadian news media industry, gives the federal government a failing grade for timely disclosure of information. It also said its performance in this year’s audit “was even worse than in the latter years of the former Stephen Harper government.”

“The results are not encouraging and show a system that seems as broken as ever,” said a report on the audit by journalist and professor Fred Vallance-Jones and Emily Kitagawa, a freelance journalist and social worker.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP democratic reform critic, called the findings “shameful.”

“It’s got to be a bad day for Liberals when Stephen Harper was more open to the Canadian public than they are,” he said.

The report came the same day the federal information watchdog said she is “generally very disappointed” with the Liberal bill that would revise the Access to Information Act, which is intended to let Canadians see federal files.

Information commissioner Suzanne Legault said on Tuesday she will outline her concerns about the planned changes in a special report to Parliament this week.

The act, which took effect in 1983, allows people who pay $5 to request everything from correspondence and studies to expense reports and meeting minutes.

Agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason for taking more time.

Source: Canada’s access-to-information system has worsened under Trudeau government: report – The Globe and Mail

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Government uses Access to Information Act as ‘shield’ against openness: czar – Politics – CBC New

Some things appear not to change although I recognize the complexities involved:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is failing to deliver on his promise of a government that’s open by default, the federal information czar says.

The law that’s intended to give Canadians access to government files is being used instead as a shield against transparency, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said in her annual report tabled Thursday.

Legault said her investigations reveal the Access to Information Act is failing to foster accountability and trust.

The act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days and agencies must have legitimate reasons for taking longer.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, antiquated and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it.

A number of key institutions that possess valuable information for Canadians showed declines in performance, said Legault, an ombudsman for users of the law.

In terms of timeliness, the RCMP, the Canada Revenue Agency, the Correctional Service and Global Affairs received F grades, while National Defence and Health Canada were branded with the even more serious Red Alert status.

Legault’s report says she referred one case to the attorney general last month after uncovering apparent improper deletion of emails by an employee of Shared Services Canada.

Culture change needed on government openness1:21

The latest federal budget contained no funding for transparency measures and there has been no direction from the head of the public service on increasing transparency, Legault said.

Trudeau’s promises of making the government more open and accountable must be accompanied by action, she told a news conference. “I think he needs to do more. And I think he needs to make sure that the bureaucracy does more. It’s not enough to say it.”

The Liberal government recently acknowledged it is delaying planned reforms to the 34-year-old law due to the complexities of the task — changes Legault maintains are essential and long overdue.

The promised amendments include giving the information commissioner the power to order the release of government records and ensuring the access law applies to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

Action, not talk, needed

Treasury Board President Scott Brison said Thursday that reforms are coming, though he did not say exactly when. “We agree, actually, with the commissioner about the need to modernize the act.”

New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie, who sat on a Commons committee that recommended a sweeping overhaul of the law, said Thursday it’s clear what needs to be done. “It’s just a real disappointment for people who took the government at its word in terms of openness and transparency and all the rest.”

Brison did take a first step last year, issuing a ministerial directive to enshrine the principle that federal agencies should be “open by default.”

Legault said the move, on its own, is not sufficient.

“If you want to truly change a whole culture in a very large bureaucracy, you’re going to have to make a concerted effort. There are going to have to be clear messages from the prime minister, the responsible ministers, the clerk of the Privy Council,” she said.

“Sadly, champions for transparency are absent.”

Source: Government uses Access to Information Act as ‘shield’ against openness: czar – Politics – CBC News

Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in ‘secret’ archives

Hard to know whether deliberate policy or, what I think may be more likely, lower priority and capacity constraints:

Some of Canada’s leading historians say the federal government is putting the country’s historical record at risk by hoarding piles of documents inside secret archives that together would make a stack taller than the CN Tower.

Historian Dennis Molinaro of Trent University discovered ministries and agencies are stockpiling millions of decades-old papers rather than handing them over to Library and Archives Canada for safekeeping and public access. He’s launched a petition to try to convince the government to set them free.

The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) has joined his campaign and is calling on the government to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary by overhauling the laws on access to government records.

“It’s very disturbing that there are caches of documents about which we know very little. We don’t even know the extent of this,” said CHA president Joan Sangster, a colleague of Molinaro’s at Trent in Peterborough, Ont., where she teaches labour and women’s history.

As part of his research, Molinaro has been asking government departments to hand over information about Canada’s Cold War domestic spy and surveillance programs run by the RCMP. Last fall, the federal government initially refused his access-to-information request for the papers (which were never transferred to the national archives) concerning a 65-year-old top secret RCMP wiretapping program dubbed Project Picnic.

One day after CBC News reported on Molinaro’s battle with the bureaucracy, officials notified him they would release the 1951 “secret order” that authorized the wiretapping program targeting suspected Soviet spies and other subversives, signed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent.

‘Secret or shadow archive’

Access-to-information officials have told Molinaro the Privy Council Office holds at least 1.6 million more pages from the era, many of which could concern Cold War counter-espionage programs. He’s also learned many more intelligence-related records dating back four, five and six decades are being held by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs.

He’s been told in email exchanges that there’s currently no public list to help him — or any other researcher — understand, let alone access, these mountains of papers kept inside closed government storerooms.

“The government seems to be, in essence, running some kind of secret or shadow archive,” Molinaro told CBC News.

Keeping millions of records from the national archives is “appalling,” he said.

“You’re hiding the historical record from the Canadian people.”

He says the problem extends far beyond his own research interest of domestic surveillance.

“Think of how many events from the Cold War … The Cuban Missile Crisis … RCMP counter-intelligence operations, foreign intelligence operations,” he said. “What else is there on other topics? On Indigenous affairs and relations? What else is in different government institutions on a variety of topics?

“We don’t know.”

CBC News asked various government departments to identify how much historical material they keep that’s more than 30 years old — and why.

The Privy Council Office (PCO) revealed it has “1,430 cubic feet” (40.5 cubic metres) of government records dating back many decades.

docsgraph

PCO says transfer of these cabinet documents, discussion papers and records to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is “time-consuming” and first requires wide consultation to ensure classified information isn’t released improperly.

The office says it’s looking at recommendations to declassify a large block of “legacy” information from 1939-1959, and considering transferring cabinet minutes and documents from the 1980s to LAC.

The CSE, Canada’s electronic spy agency, acknowledges it, too, is struggling to sort 128 linear metres of boxes of “legacy” records that are more than three decades old before handing them over to LAC.

The Foreign Affairs Department, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP all declined to say how much historical material they continue to store.

Source: Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in ‘secret’ archives – Canada – CBC News

Ministry asks $30 per minute for data, despite Brison’s order to drop ATIP fees

As a reasonably heavy user of IRCC data, that released on Open Data as well as specific requests, I understand and appreciate both the cost recovery (takes time and resources) and public interest aspects (data helps inform discussion and debate).

But $30 per additional minute of search time? Hard to justify on cost recovery given it is only staff time that should be counted: $100 for the first 10 minutes and $30 per minute thereafter is $1,600 per hour!

The federal immigration ministry is asking up to $30 per minute to process a public request for immigration data, despite the Liberal government’s directive last year to waive extra fees for access to information requests and commitment to making government information open by default.

One advocate of government transparency said the $30-per-minute proposed charge thwarts the intent of Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s fee-waiving directive, and another said such fees could work as a “deterrent” to members of the public looking for government information.

The request related to information that factored into a change in the government’s visa policy that allowed the passage of Canada’s trade deal with Europe.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada officials initially declined to make public the rate at which visa applications from Bulgaria and Romania were refused, unless the requester—The Hill Times—agreed to pay $100 for a 10-minute search of the department’s records, plus $30 for each additional minute it would take IRCC employees to find the data.

Mr. Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) instructed all government entities last year to waive fees associated with access to information requests—used by businesses, media, and the general public to obtain government information—beyond an initial $5 filing fee, as part of the government’s transparency platform.

The Hill Times used the Access to Information Act to request the most recent three-year visa refusal rate for Romania, Bulgaria, and Mexico, countries for which the Liberal government has scrapped or has pledged to scrap visa requirements since it came to power in 2015. The government has been criticized, including by the opposition Conservatives, for deciding to drop those requirements to grease the wheels of international relations, despite evidence that in the months leading up to the visa-lifting decisions none of the three countries satisfied some of the government’s formal criteria for eliminating a visa, including high rates of refused visa and asylum claims.

The immigration ministry provided some data for Mexico, but none for Romania and Bulgaria, citing a clause in the Access to Information Act that says the access law does not apply to “material available for purchase by the public.” The ministry’s response also cited regulations, specific to that department, which allow it to charge large sums for “statistical data that have not been published by the department.”

In effect, the data—which should be at the fingertips of decision makers in IRCC—was considered to fall outside of the scope of the Access to Information Act because the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations allow the department to charge money for data searches.

“It’s obviously an illegitimate interpretation of the act,” said Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Nova Scotia, and an advocate for government transparency.

The Access to Information Act clause excluding material available for purchase “means material that you are selling, like a book,” not government data, said Mr. Mendel, who called it a “dishonest” interpretation of the act by the department.

The three-year visa refusal rate is a key figure used by the government to decide whether or not citizens of a particular country need to apply for a visa before travelling to Canada. Canada decided last year to waive the visa requirement for Romania and Bulgaria by December 2017 as part of what is widely seen to be a quid-pro-quo for support from those two countries for supporting the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe.

The government has not disclosed the latest visa refusal rate for those countries, but an April 2015 report from the European Commission, citing Canadian statistics, said the refusal rates in the first half of 2014 had been 16 per cent for Bulgaria and 13.8 per cent for Romania, which made hitting the target of four per cent over three years “quite difficult.”

…The fee starts at $100 for the first 10 minutes departmental employees spend searching for the requested information in their databases. After that, it increases to $30 per minute.

After being initially contacted by The Hill Times on April 20, the immigration department’s media relations team promised to provide the visa refusal rate for Romania and Bulgaria and respond to a series of questions about the fees charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations in relation to requests under the Access to Information Act. The department had not responded by filing deadline May 2.

Source: Ministry asks $30 per minute for data, despite Brison’s order to drop ATIP fees – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

Liberals issue openness directive, scrap most Access to Information fees

Very good first start (for those responsible for my pending ATIP requests, please note and process accordingly):

The Liberal government is immediately waiving all fees associated with access to information requests — apart from the $5 application charge.

It is also telling federal agencies to make information available in the format of the requester’s choice, such as handy data spreadsheets, wherever possible. [one of my and other’s biggest peeves]

The measures are included in an interim directive on openness from Treasury Board President Scott Brison.

Brison told a Commons committee studying changes to the access law Thursday the steps represent early progress on Liberal commitments for reform.

He said the openness directive is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves and should be open by default.

It also emphasizes that providing access is paramount to serving the public interest.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, out of date and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it. The law has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.

The Liberals plan to introduce legislation late this year or in early 2017 to implement several other short-term changes to the law based on election campaign commitments. They promise a full review of the Access to Information Act once the initial bill passes and every five years thereafter.

“This act is out of date,” Brison told MPs on the committee. “We never want to be in this place again.”

Brison said the next wave of measures would:

  • Give the information commissioner, an ombudsman for requesters, the power to order release of government information — something she cannot do now;

  • Ensure the act applies appropriately to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet members, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts;

  • Address the issue of frivolous and vexatious requests so that the purpose of the act is respected;

  • Improve government performance reporting on Access to Information.

Source: Liberals issue openness directive, scrap most Access to Information fees – The Globe and Mail

Trudeau government asks for ideas on open government

Where do I begin?:

The Liberal government is asking Canadians for their ideas on making government more open.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison announced the national consultation today.

Brison says the transparency bus has left the station.

The minister says he believes that an open government is a more effective government.

Beginning today, people can go to open.canada.ca to offer their views on what should be in the next federal strategy on open government.

Officials will also hold in-person discussions across the country and the resulting plan is to be released this summer.

 Some initial thoughts on my short list:
  • The hardest issue of all: changing the culture and enforcing a default obligation of openness;
  • Provide information in electronic formats that allow manipulation for analytical purposes. The previous government only released public opinion research data tables in pdf format, rather than in spreadsheets. More recently, PCO was unable (or unwilling) to export its database of GiC appointments in spreadsheet format, requiring me to recreate this already public information;
  • Expanded data sets, issued regularly in a timely fashion. My initial list, starting with citizenship:
    • in addition to top 10 (consider top 25)  countries of birth, have complete table or one mapped to IRCC operational regions (top 10 only covers about 50 percent of new citizens)
    • naturalization rate after 6 years of permanent residency, broken down country of birth mapped to IRCC operational regions
    • naturalization rate after 6 years of permanent residency by immigration category, gender and province
    • citizenship test pass (language and knowledge) results by country of birth mapped to IRC operational regions
    For passports, numbers related to:
    • top 25 countries of birth (all)
    • top 25 countries of birth (foreign-born)
    • number of passports issued abroad mapped to IRC operational region (to give sense of Canadian expatriates)
    • breakdown by country of birth of passports issued abroad

    Appointments: regular employment equity type reporting for all GiC appointments.

Source: Trudeau government asks for ideas on open government – Macleans.ca

Liberals push Access to Information overhaul back to 2018

I am more forgiving of the Government than some of the critics. Better to take some time to get it right, given the policy and operational considerations, but in the meantime, Canadians need to hold the Government to account, provide input to the open.canada.ca consultation site, and continue to provide examples of where the system is not working (my experience under the previous government can be found in my  ATIP Delay Log):

The Liberal government is pushing their pledged overhaul of the outdated Access to Information system to 2018, Treasury Board President Scott Brison revealed Thursday.

The government will still move within a year to make some smaller changes to the 33-year old system, which allows Canadians to obtain government information for a $5 fee.

But the larger reforms to address well-documented problems such as delays and aggressively applied secrecy provisions will have to wait two years.

“This act hasn’t been updated since 1983. Getting it right is really important,” Brison told reporters Thursday.

“We feel we can move forward with some specific changes over the next several months . . . but that doesn’t obviate the need to do a deeper consultation in 2018, which will look at other areas of improvement.”

Once a world-leading law, the Access to Information Act has been allowed to decay under successive Liberal and Conservative governments. It has not been substantially updated since the early 1980s, when most government business was conducted on paper.

The situation reached a point where, in 2015, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault was forced to call the system a “shield against transparency.”

In their election platform, the Liberals pledged to make government information “open by default” — the principle being Canadians ultimately own their government’s work, and should be able to access it unless their government has a compelling reason to keep it secret.

The government also promised to eliminate the sometimes exorbitant fees departments charge for searching for and photocopying documents to release.

While those changes will have to wait, Brison’s department is moving forward on other commitments: applying the system to ministers’ offices, including the Prime Minister’s Office, administrative bodies in Parliament and federal courts, as well as giving Legault’s office the ability to issue binding orders for departments to release documents.

Treasury Board is expected to unveil legislation incorporating those changes, and potentially others from a parliamentary committee and public consultations, either in 2016 or 2017.

Fred Vallance-Jones, a journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, said the government appears to be moving in the right direction. But he questioned why more dramatic changes need to wait.

“I don’t think there’s any lack of advice that’s been given to the federal government over the last number of years about what is wrong with how the act is working,” Vallance-Jones, who leads Newspapers Canada’s annual Freedom of Information Audit, said Thursday.

“Those kinds of things have been on the table for quite a long time.”

Source: Liberals push Access to Information overhaul back to 2018 | Toronto Star

International-student work program needs overhaul, report says

Great example of some of the in-depth research and analysis that IRCC/CIC do, and the importance this work can and should have in ongoing policy development and program design.

However, highly disturbing that the release of such research took a nine-month battle between the Globe and IRCC/CIC. It is one thing to apply ATIP liberally with respect to advice to a Minister (decision or information memo), quite another to research. Questionable ethics for all involved, and hopefully the current Government will deliver on its commitment to greater openness:

A program that allows international students to work in Canada after graduation is creating a low-wage work force, encouraging low-quality postsecondary programs, and needs to be redesigned, says an internal report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Under the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program international students with degrees from Canadian colleges and universities can work here for up to three years after their programs end. Between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of eligible international students applied for a work permit, the report says, with more than 70,000 people holding permits in 2014.

The program is designed to make Canadian postsecondary institutions an attractive destination and to give international students work experience, making it easier to apply for permanent residence.

But the 35-page report found that the majority of those employed through a work permit are in low-skilled jobs in the service sector, and have median earnings that are less than half of other recent university and college graduates.

“Facilitating this large pool of temporary labour, largely in low-paid positions, may be in conflict with the objectives of the Putting Canadians First strategy,” the report states.

That strategy was initiated by the former Conservative government to prioritize employment for Canadians after abuses of the temporary-foreign-worker program came to light. The Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) report was commissioned as part of a larger review of temporary-foreign-worker policies.

The Globe and Mail obtained the report after a nine-month battle. The government initially refused the request. After an appeal to the Information Commissioner of Canada and discussions between the commissioner, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the newspaper, the government provided a partly redacted version of the report.

Marked “secret,” the report reviews six years of the work-permit program, from 2008 to 2014. It raises many questions about how Canada attracts international students and how they transition to citizenship.

Its findings are likely to complicate the recently announced review of how the new Express Entry immigration system is treating international students who want to become permanent residents. Express Entry, introduced in January, 2015, does not award applicants any extra points for studying in Canada, as had been the case under a prior immigration program for international students. As a result, it has been heavily criticized for making it much harder for international students to become permanent residents.

Earlier this month, John McCallum, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, said the government is launching a federal-provincial task force to look at how Express Entry can better serve this group.

“International students have been shortchanged by the Express Entry system,” he said at the time. “They are the cream of the crop in terms of potential future Canadians …”

The PGWP report, however, suggests that most international students’ investment in a Canadian education is not being rewarded by the labour market.

International students with a work permit had median earnings of $19,291 in 2010, compared with about $41,600 for 2013 domestic college graduates and $53,000 for Canadian university grads, according to the review.

Source: International-student work program needs overhaul, report says – The Globe and Mail

Rudy and McKinney: Making government information more accessible

Valid points and practical suggestions made by Bernard Rudny of Powered by Data, a project of Tides Canada, and James McKinney.

My experience is mixed with respect to data requests.

Some departments (CIC/IRCC) have established procedures and protocols to access data, and have been very forthcoming in my requests (apart from the Comms folks who refused to provide polling data in spreadsheet form!).

TBS was similarly forthcoming with respect to diversity among ADMs but PCO was not able (or unwilling) to provide the public information on the more than 1,300 GiC appointments in spreadsheet form (like any database, this should be easily exportable):

ATI is simultaneously an invaluable and cumbersome system. Any record that is requested must be manually reviewed, regardless of how innocuous it may be, which makes the process slow and inefficient.

Consider a common example: you request a spreadsheet from a federal department. Its contents are neither confidential nor controversial. Under the present system, that spreadsheet will be printed, reviewed, scanned, then mailed to you as a PDF file on a CD-ROM. The whole process takes weeks, months or even years. By the time it’s complete, any functionality the spreadsheet had as a digital document — like being able to search for text, or add up the numbers in a column — is gone. Instead, you’re dealing with a low-grade image of something that was once useful data that could be searched and sorted.

This is a 20th-century approach to information. It treats every “record” like a paper document. That’s appropriate in some cases, but in the era of the Internet and databases, it’s out of step with the times. The alternative is to release information pro-actively — not just in response to requests — and to use formats that preserve the value of digital data. True openness is about eliminating barriers to access and going out of your way to publish open data.

To be fair, there has been some good news on that front: the Treasury Board Secretariat has done a laudable job of creating an open data program and the 2014 Directive on Open Government included a commitment to being open by default.

If the federal government is going to become more open, it needs to be transparent about the progress it is making

So where do we go from here? How can the government build trust and make progress on this issue? The first step is to inventory all the information of value the federal government holds. Canada has already committed to creating that inventory under the open government directive, but it’s not required to happen before 2020. Speeding up the process is essential.

As we write this, more than 245,000 datasets are available through the government’s open data portal. That’s an impressive number, but it raises a question: how many are still closed? The number is likely in the millions, but ultimately unknown. Without it, there’s no meaningful way to measure the progress being made.

Moreover, some federal departments have been better about releasing information than others. Of the open datasets mentioned above, about 236,000 come from Natural Resources Canada. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, meanwhile, has released two datasets, Public Safety has released one. Inventories would help assess which departments need more help to open up their information.

Completing this inventory of information sooner rather than later would provide other benefits. Once the inventory is available, stakeholders — including researchers, communities, non-profit organizations and businesses — can provide informed input on what data to release first. That allows government departments to prioritize the opening of information that will enable positive social and economic impacts.

No one expects “open by default” to be implemented overnight. There are many steps to take — from reforming the ATI system to dealing with Crown copyright — and the road is long. Some information will also need to be kept within government for reasons of privacy and security.

Source: Rudny & McKinney: Making government information more accessible | National Post

Improving public access to information will make government better, Trudeau says

Something to watch:

During the election campaign, the Liberals said government data and information should be open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use.

Trudeau has asked Treasury Board President Scott Brison to work with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on a review of the access law to ensure the information commissioner is empowered to order government files to be released — something she cannot do now.

He also wants Canadians to have easier access to their own personal information and says the law should be extended to ministerial offices — including his own — as well as to the administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

In addition, Trudeau has directed Brison to accelerate and expand open-data initiatives and make government data available digitally.

In the interview, the prime minister made it clear he was not wedded to those changes alone.

“Access to information is about better governance, and it’s about ensuring that the decisions we take are thoroughly justifiable on a broad level,” he said. “And that’s not always easy, but it is certainly what’s going to lead to better outcomes.”

In a broad sense, the federal government must dispense with the notion that secrecy is necessary for decision-making behind the doors of cabinet, caucus and the bureaucracy, said Sean Holman, an assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“That’s really the test of openness for any kind of access-to-information reform in this country.”

Certain classes of records, such as audits and ministerial calendars, should be released as a matter of course so “we get used to the idea that government should be operating in the sunlight, not in these darkened, private spaces,” he said.

Legault tabled a report earlier this year recommending dozens of changes to the access law — the latest in a long line of calls for reform. She welcomes the prospect of a federal review, but hopes it happens “in a timely manner.”

Holman said history suggests the Trudeau government’s planned study will lead nowhere.

“The fact that this isn’t something the government appears to be doing immediately is concerning in and of itself,” he said.

“The longer governments stay in power the more seductive secrecy becomes.”

Source: Improving public access to information will make government better, Trudeau says