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However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, out of date and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it.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“This act is out of date,” Brison told MPs on the committee.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

Liberal transparency reforms subject to ‘review’ next year

Not surprising, these kinds of changes take time to develop and require considerable consultation and preparation.

In the meantime, however, it would be nice if public servants could take a cue from the government’s signal change and implement a less restrictive redaction policy (it was funny for me to have my ATIP requests on documents that I had worked on overly redacted):

Delivery of a key Liberal promise on transparency is likely months away, as an election commitment to reform the Access to Information Act has morphed into a “review” of the legislation starting next year.

During the election campaign, Leader Justin Trudeau said a Liberal government would end fees for processing information requests; give the information commissioner the power to order release of documents; and make ministers’ offices subject to the act, among other changes.

But Trudeau’s mandate letter to the minister responsible for shepherding the reform, Treasury Board President Scott Brison, backs off from those categorical commitments, most of which the Liberals have been touting since at least June 2014.

Firearms RCMP

The office of Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada, says it is not aware of any immediate changes to the access-to-information system since the Liberals came to power. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The promise to cut fees disappears altogether from the mandate letter. It says other promises are to be part of a “review” that will include input from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault and other stakeholders.

And the platform commitment to ensure the act “applies” to ministers’ offices, including the Prime Minister’s Office, has changed in the mandate letter to “appropriately applies.”

A spokesperson for Brison’s office says details of the “review” will be announced in the new year, and will include an examination of fees.

“Given the importance of these changes and their complexity, further consideration is required,” said Lisa Murphy. “The government will take the time necessary to fully examine all the options.”

Source: Liberal transparency reforms subject to ‘review’ next year – Politics – CBC News

Federal Access to Information law ‘critically sick’: new study

Confirms all the various articles and reports over the years, along with my experience:

The federal access-to-information law is “effectively crippled” as a means of promoting accountability, says a new study that tested open records legislation across the country.

The latest annual freedom of information audit by lobby group Newspapers Canada says long delays, staff shortages and blacked-out pages add up to an Access to Information Act “that just doesn’t work.”

The organization, which represents more than 800 newspapers, sent almost 450 access requests to federal government departments and Crown corporations, ministries, departments and agencies in all provinces and territories and to municipalities and police forces.

The report says the results revealed familiar, entrenched patterns, and some new ones.

In the digital age, it stresses, the willingness to disclose data in formats that can be read by computers is increasingly important and, once again, the audit found many public bodies “resistant to releasing information in these formats.”

People who want information from Canada’s cities could expect reasonably speedy service, while provinces, on average, took a little longer and the federal government trailed far behind.

Requesters who file an application under the federal Access to Information Act should be prepared for a long wait and to see more information withheld, the report says.

“There is no doubt that the federal access system is critically sick. Departments can take months to answer requests, even though the normal time from start to finish is supposed to be 30 days or fewer.”

Bringing Canada’s access to information back from the brink

More a niche issue rather than one to attract general public attention but important and central to democratic government:

In 2009-10, the federal government logged 35,154 new access requests. That number nearly doubled in five years, to 60,105 requests in 2013-14.

But Michel Drapeau, a lawyer specializing in access law, doesn’t believe the system is suffering due to the increase in volume. Drapeau instead places the blame squarely on the “centre” of the government — the Privy Council Office, the department that supports the prime minister — and department’s willingness to run requests by them.

“To claim a delay becomes now not the exception but the normal course of events,” Drapeau said in an interview last week.

“Access to information is on a slow descent into irrelevance.”

There have been signs that the strain on the system is taking its toll. Summer students and temporary workers are being brought in to deal with “surges” in requests, which typically occur around a big news story. The situation lead one senior access officer to report a “critical shortage” of qualified staff to her superiors.

At the same time, the Conservative government has boasted of a record number of pages released to the public. The government repeatedly pointed to the volume of material released as a sign the system was healthy.

But according to Treasury Board data, only 27 per cent of those requests were “all disclosed” — uncensored — in 2013-14. A further 50 per cent were disclosed “in part,” which includes everything to documents with one line censored and records almost entirely blacked out.

Over their time in power, the Conservatives have made strides towards “open data,” releasing information and datasets collected by federal departments as a matter of course. While most of the files released to date are mapping files from Natural Resources Canada, several departments have released substantial files that can be accessed through the open.gc.ca portal.

But Teresa Scassa, a University of Ottawa professor who served on the federal open government advisory committee, said the government is less likely to voluntarily turn over sensitive or controversial documents — and that’s where access to information comes in.

“These are data sets that are useful to the private sector,” Scassa said of the government’s open data efforts to date.

“And that’s more the orientation of it rather than transparency or accountability, the kinds of things that journalists go after for example when they’re looking to see how governments are dealing with certain kinds of (issues).”

Information Commissioner’s Recommendations

In March, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault released a comprehensive list of 85 recommendations to overhaul Canada’s access to information system. Broadly speaking, they include:

Maximize Disclosure — Overhaul exemptions that prohibit disclosure, create a public interest override, create a statutory obligation to declassify material.

Reduce delays — Limit extensions by government to a maximum of 60 days, limit internal consultations with other government agencies.

Expand coverage — Expand the institutions covered under access to information to Parliament, ministers’ offices, and the courts.

Toughen penalties — Create new offences for obstructing access, destroying or altering records, and prohibit failing to document decisions or substantial discussions.

Giving the watchdog teeth — Give the commissioner the power to order government documents released.

Missing in Ottawa? Government transparency

Sounds familiar.

When I was in government, we regularly used Blackberry PINs for sensitive stuff although I was always careful (I think) in my use of language as I always assumed that anything electronic is saved somewhere (and there was a CIBC case, I believe, where PINs were accessed). But hadn’t heard the term off-line used as a verb before:

But the “real problems” go even deeper than that. The revealing PMO emails have hinted at an even more secretive Ottawa, where staffers, diplomats and journalists communicate with each other by direct messages, private emails, or services such as LinkedIn—in other words, on any platform that cannot be exposed under the Access to Information Act, or can be erased before called for as evidence. Call it the Official Underground Ottawa.

“The rule is: Don’t write anything down on official channels that you wouldn’t want to see on the front of the newspaper,” one government source told me. We connected via direct message on Twitter, then used the phone. No email. “And, since the Duffy trial, people in government are even more cautious.”

So what happens in Underground Ottawa? No one uses official, on-the-record channels for the “real” problems. Everyone “off-lines”—it’s a verb. As one MP told me, “I never get on those email chains where cc’ing 10 people is normal. I insist on using the phone.” At the Duffy trial, we learned that key players in the PMO were using instant messaging and text messages to talk about Duffy, but none of it was entered as evidence.

In 2013, information commissioner Suzanne Legault investigated a range of government departments over their use of offline communication. She uncovered the secret door leading to Underground Ottawa, a world with no oversight, no rules and no transparency. Key information “is being irremediably deleted or lost,” she wrote. Legault concluded that retrieving messages was “practically impossible,” and the likelihood of getting instant messages from within a ministerial office was “non-existent.” No records means no accountability.

Source: Missing in Ottawa? Government transparency