Canada ranks last in freedom of information

For those who missed it over the weekend it turns out Canada ranks last in freedom of information study that looked at the world’s western Parliamentary democracies. What makes it all the more astounding is that a decade ago Canada was considered a leader.

Consider two from the Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault quotes pulled from the piece:

Only about 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests filed last year resulted in the full disclosure of information, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago, she noted.

And delays in the release of records continue to grow, with just 56 per cent of requests completed in the legislated 30-day period last year, compared with almost 70 per cent at the start of the decade.

These are appalling numbers.

The sad thing is… don’t expect things to get better. Why?

Firstly, the current government seems completely uninterested in access to information, transparency and proactive disclosure, despite these being core planks of its election platform and core values of the reform movement that re-launched Canadian conservatism. Indeed, reforming and improving access to information is the only unfulfilled original campaign promise of the Conservatives – and there appears to be no interest in touching it. Quite the opposite – that political staff now intervene to block and restrict Access to Information Requests – contravening the legislation and policy – is now a well known and documented fact.

Second, this issue is of secondary importance to the public. While everyone will say they care about access to information and open government, then number of people (while growing) still remains small. These types of reports and issues are of secondary importance. This isn’t to say they don’t matter. They do – but generally after something bigger and nastier has come to light and the public begins to smell rot. Then studies like this become the type of thing that hurts a government – it gives legitimacy and language to a sentiment people widely feel.

Third, the public seems confused about who they distrust more – the fact is, however bad the current government is on this issue, the Liberal brand is still badly tarnished on this issue of transparent government due to the scandals from almost a decade ago. Sadly, this means that there will be less burden on this government to act since – every time the issue of transparency and open government arise – rather than act, Government leaders simply point out the other parties failings.

So as the world moves on while Canada remains stuck, its government becoming more opaque, distant and less accountable to the people that elect it.

Interestingly , this also has a real cost to Canada’s influence in the world. It means something when the world turns to you as an expert – as we once were on access to information – minister’s are consulted by other world leaders, your public servants are given access to information loops they might otherwise not know about, there is a general respect, a soft power, that comes from being an acknowledged leader. Today, this is gone.

Indeed, it is worth noting that of the countries survey in the above mentioned study, only Canada and Ireland do not have open data portals which allow for proactive disclosure.

It’s a sign of the times.

This is further

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Mark Hammer

Having been on the receiving end of access-to-information requests, I think there are a number of things that David Eaves overlooks.

I have followed the running battle between the press and the current Conservative government since it began. While it would be easy to depict the Conservatives as desperately trying to put up barriers between the public and internal government workings, my eyes were opened by a report written by the esteemed Paul Thomas for the Oliphant Commission a couple of years ago, which you can find archived here:

(Note: you may have to take several stabs, because archived web-sites have to be entered or re-entered several times to get to the document. You’ll find the report on this web-page: )

Thomas uses data from the previous Liberal government, but the takehome message is clear: in an era when e-communications increase the volume of information to be managed, it makes the organization of information so demanding as to provoke a sort of stranglehold on “the message” by the folks in communications, regardless of who is in power, simply to avoid the risk of having multiple conflicting messages circulating. It’s something that all governments have to address these days, and it ain’t pretty.

On a completely different track, I think it also bears noting that:

a) Nobody really saves/stores anything in anticipation of an ATIP request on a specific topic. Often, a document may contain information about a number of things, some of which may be central to the request, some of which may be rather peripheral, and much of which may well be unrelated. Conversely, nobody makes an ATIP request in a manner that dovetails nicely with the manner in which information is stored. If they can’t find what you asked for, there may well be a very good reason.

b) The degree of churn within the federal public service these days makes it much less likely that the person who knows where the information is located, and which draft was the final draft, etc., etc., is still working in the same place. Sending new hires to sift through the shared drive is unlikely to get anyone a timely response, no matter how transparent the organization is longing to be.

c) Current legislation and policy prevent the folks who are tasked with dredging up the information from knowing who asked for it, or contacting them to help refine and expedite the search. I’m sure they would love to cooperate, if only they knew what the heck the requester wanted and didn’t want. I’ve had to respond to requests where my first reaction was “What the hell does that even mean?”, and my second reaction was “If I don’t have more to narrow it down, we’re talking thousands of pages of potentially useless crap that sends the requester on a wild goose chase.”.

So, without wishing to whitewash anyone or anything, or suppress debate with a wave of the hand, I think Mr. Eaves has to consider that history is on the march, and changes in government are simply mapped onto that global history and technological change, with some administrations having the misfortune to be inserted into a time when some tasks are much easier said than done.

David Eaves

Thank you Mark for the comment. A few things.

One – your comments seem to more to the technical challenges of addressing this. I agree with most of your points – much of this is challenging – but my post was more about the political appetite and environment around this issue, which is a different issue.

The only place where I think I disagree is the final sentence. The problem with this survey is that this is a survey of peers – these are all western parliamentary democracies and so to somehow say we are on a different historical arc then them seems problematic. If we were comparing Canada to non-parliamentary systems or, say, Eastern European countries that have recently modernized and democratized, I might be in agreement. But were not. I actually think the fact that this is a true peer study makes it all the more damning.

Mark Hammer

Thanks for your own reply, David. Not often that the original blogger replies, so I’m honoured.

If you’ve read Thomas Axworthy and Julie Burch’s excellent report from January 2010, entitled “Closing the Implementation Gap”, you will be only too cogniscent of the fact that political staffers can all too often let their exuberance run away with them and lead them across the boundaries of their authority. So we are right to be concerned and vigilant about the role that partisan suppression can play in the access to information.

At the same time, I think we are generally too quick to assume that partisan factors constitute the primary or only reason why things take so long and come back so incomplete. A decade ago, I was shocked to learn that the executive director of my branch received some 700 e-mails a week. Though no longer in the position, I would imagine that nowadays she would yearn for the days when she only received 700 a week.

If you know Paul Thomas, you’ll know he is no shill for either the Tories or Grits. So when he highlights the information-management challenges in PCO and the PMO as serious, you can assume he is not trying to let anyone off lightly. And, given how often directives from the top get fuzzier, the more levels they descend, and that they tend to start out even fuzzier these days, due to senior officials never seeming to be in one spot long enough to put a thought together, one should never be surprised at how many “draft versions” of something can be floating around in those 2 terrabyte backup drives, with content and perspectives very different from what was intended.

Bottom line?: Do not mistake the public service losing its grip on information, with the Conservative government increasing its grip. They are probably both occurring, but my sense is that the one is occurring more than the other.

As for rankings, if someone told me they had slipped from the 10th best-paid 1st string quarterback in the NFL to the worst-paid 1st string quarterback, my sympathies would not be elicited. Rankings can be very misleading, and the practical distance between successive ranks is rarely conveyed. So when I see Canada as the “worst” of 5 highly progressive Westminister-system democracies, and especially when I see things like the $5 fee factored into the rankings, I find it hard to take them seriously. If we were comparable to Turkmenistan or Zimbabwe, that would be one thing, but that’s not what the nature of the comparison is.

Does the system work as well as it should, or could? Not at all. Is it “broken”? Not at all. Is the planning for accessibility by government, and the understanding of the law by the public good enough? Not at all.

In my own organization, we had a “document management system” dumped on us, ostensibly to facilitate retrieval, and partly for ATIP purposes. While I am sure it could be “mined” for pertinent documents for the first 6 months, after 2 years of use, the boundaries between document content categories ceases to be relevant since the document/content nosology is rarely able to anticipate all the particulars of the future. Hell, even within my own filing cabinet, I have NEVER been able to maintain an adequate classification system for all the thousands of academic reprints and reports I have. As new material gets acquired, more and more of it seems to accumulate in one big undifferentiated pile.

Here’s another conundrum to meditate on. I do employee surveys for a living. We promise people confidentiality, so they end up telling us some enraging and heartbreaking things sometimes. We ask them not to include any information in their comments that might identify anyone or any organization, but people get caught up in the heat of the moment and insert stuff I don’t want to know. Sometimes when they have something positive to say, but much moreso when they are angry. So, I redact what they say and insert generic information like <UNIT> for the name they drop. The purpose is to be able to pass along their comments to management, with all the emotional rawness intact, without misleading anyone about the frequency of occurrence in that particular place (remember, there might be wads of people with positive comments who DON’T mention the work unit). Should I maintain the original comments, and risk management doing something unwarranted? Should I ask them for their opinion? Should the people who offered up those comments be able to have access to them in their uneditted AND editted form? Do I have to be prepared to provide that? (Note that we save these anonymously so as to protect their confidentiality)

I say all this because there are a GREAT many operational aspects of information management that are certainly not well thought through by anyone, yet the xpectation is there that such information will be easily provided at the drop of a hat. I think we need to calibrate our expectations a little better.

David Eaves

Hi Mark – important to me to respond to people who take the time to comment, I try to whenever I can. Hope you feel respected more than honoured. 🙂

2 thoughts:
1) Again, I wasn’t trying to diagnose why this is hard, just talking about the political calculations. More importantly, my post was not an attack on the conservatives, just an explanation for why they might behave the way they do.

2) I agree this stuff is complex, but that’s also the reason why I think it is broken. I actually don’t think citizens expectations should be calibrated, it is useless to learn 1 year later the reasons why I decision is made when the debate will be long over by then. For me the system is already broken – we just pretend like it isn’t. The real fix is when we get much more active about proactive disclosure. In this regard, it may not be citizens expectations that need to be recalibrated but politicians and public servants that will need to learn that documents will definitely become open, and likely in a shorter time span.

Mark Hammer

Respected AND honoured, thanks.

Transparency, and proactive disclosure, is just not a reflex in the federal government. And not so much because the first instinct is to hide, but really more because it is just not in the bureaucratic nature to think immediately of what others would want to know, or need to know, or could not find out easily any other way. I have battles about this with my management constantly, reminding them “You need to TELL people such and such, because they want to know”. The reaction is invariably “Well that’s too much for them to read”, or “That makes it too long”. Of course, being a psychologist, and not an economist, I suppose I’m more prone to think about it. And sitting under the “Accountability Sword” (Damocles had it easy!), management is more likely to think about simply meeting their reporting or other obligations to TBS, or PCO, or the minister, than to thinking of citizens or public servants as partners and collaborators who need to know what’s going on in order to be better positioned to help out.

So, when you’ve got an information mountain that is near impossible to manage, and a public that is not regularly kept in the loop, the chances are very good that the public will want to know more, and the government is not going to be able to provide it. Not a particularly satisfactory state of affairs, nor what either side of the table really wants.

P.S.: Don’t worry about offending me by attacking any party. I’m not affiliated. Like you I just want there to be a clearer understanding of why things happen the way they do. Makes a viable solution that much easier to find. You can take the boy out of science, but you can’t take the science out of the boy!

When you have some spare time, give Larry Terry’s book “Leadership of Public Bureaucracies: The administrator as conservator” a read. I found it a truly inspiring little book about what it takes to maintain a public institution’s soul and authoritativeness intact.