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4th International Conference of Information Commissioners
Introductory Remarks for the Workshop on Strategies for Changing Bureaucratic Cultures
John Reid, Information Commissioner of Canada
During my almost eight years as Information Commissioner of Canada, one reality has been driven home to me over and over again. A strong, freedom of information law is essential, but insufficient in itself, to the task of changing an entrenched bureaucratic culture of secrecy. As well, there must be tangible, clear leadership from the elected and non-elected heads of government in support of openness.
By “tangible” leadership, I mean devoting adequate resources to educating the bureaucracy and enabling public servants to search for, and process, requested records in a timely manner. By “clear” leadership, I mean personal statements of support for openness in speeches and directives and personal examples of courage to be open even if doing so may prove embarrassing. Even the smallest, most subtle indications from the head of government that freedom of information is “troublesome” or something to be circumvented (such as by refraining from creating records) – will spread like wildfire throughout a bureaucracy and further entrench a culture of secrecy.
The topic of this workshop is “Strategies for Changing Bureaucratic Cultures” and, as my office proposed this topic, I have been asked to open the discussion. I don’t intend to speak at length as I want to hear what everyone else here has to say so that I may go back to Canada with new ideas to fight this continuing battle.
Canada has had, from the very beginning of its Access to Information Act, on July 1, 1983, a solidly-entrenched bureaucratic culture of secrecy. Despite changes of government over the years, and despite my, and my predecessors’, best efforts, this culture of secrecy remains strong in our federal government. The most recent example in Canada is that it took the bureaucracy less than two months to cause the newly elected Conservative government to back away from every one of its election promises to be more open and to strengthen our access to information law.
This is not to say that my office hasn’t had some success with a few strategies to fight this culture. I would like to discuss these briefly to get the discussion going, then I’m going to sit back and take notes!
In my first year in office, I took on the task of dealing with the issue of delays in the process of answering access to information requests. In virtually every annual report of every Information Commissioner before me, the issue of delay was front and centre. The percentage of complaints which were about delays had been growing every year and had reached, by 1998, almost 50% of all complaints. In some departments, 85% of requests were not answered in time.
I decided to prepare a “report card” on government institutions, assigning them a grade (from A to F) depending on the percentage of access requests received which were answered late. The grade was, entirely objective and yet it spoke volumes about the overall performance of individual departments. Each year I make the report cards public by tabling them in our Parliament. Each year I grade new institutions and do follow-up report cards on the poor performers from previous years.
By fiscal year 2003-2004, the percentage of delay complaints had dropped to 14.5%. From this low-point, though, the percentage has begun to rise. In 2004-2005, it rose to 21.1% and in the fiscal year just ended on March 31st, it rose again to 24.1%. This concerns us greatly and brings me to the second of our strategies for changing bureaucratic cultures. Nevertheless, the overall problem of delay has diminished and this is one sign that the culture of secrecy is weakening.
In 2004, Parliament created a standing committee charged with overseeing access to information matters. It is called the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. This new committee has made it a priority to ensure that the Access to Information Act is modernized and strengthened as well as enforced. In this latter regard, this committee has recently taken upon itself the task of calling before it top officials of departments which have received failing grades on our Report Cards. This increased level of parliamentary interest in, and scrutiny of, the operations of the Access to Information Act is a very positive sign of parliamentary leadership in nurturing the public’s right to know. This, too, is an important strategy in breaking down our bureaucratic culture of secrecy.
The third strategy we have employed, albeit sparingly, to encourage a culture of openness, is the subpoena. I have the power “to summon and enforce the appearance of persons … and compel them to give oral or written evidence on oath … in the same manner and to the same extent as a superior court of record.” We have used this power to compel the appearance of top bureaucrats, Deputy Ministers, senior political staff of ministers and Prime Ministers, as well as Ministers of the Crown, when appropriate. Nothing focuses the attention of a Deputy Minister or a Minister like being put under oath and questioned about why his or her department cannot manage to follow the clear imperatives of the law whether it be about delays, missing records, excessively slow and convoluted approval processes or the misuse of exemptions.
Even these formal proceedings become opportunities to educate senior officials about their access to information obligations and the legitimate reasons for secrecy which exist. Senior officials tend to fear access to information out of ignorance, rather than from any intellectually honest concern about the true sensitivities of information. Culture change, in this as in most fields, means calming fears and building self-confidence. This kind of work is the domain of education, mentoring and example – and it remains a focus of our work as we use the ombudsman model to its full advantage in the work of changing the culture of secrecy in Canada.
A fourth strategy is education. I discovered, at the University of Alberta Extension, a programme of Government studies, which dealt with information and privacy. Working with the Extension Department, we were able to deepen and develop a series of courses leading to a Certificate in Access and Privacy, issued by the University of Alberta. The web site is: www.govsource.net/programs/iapp. This programme has had a number of very positive impacts on the way in which FOI is delivered through the Government of Canada and its Provinces. These programmes are delivered “on line” so that individuals anywhere in the world are able to access them easily. The early demand for the revised courses was surprisingly high.
Some of the Federal Departments are now paying the costs to permit their staff to take the courses; and it has now become a requirement for individuals seeking to do investigative work for the Information Commissioner to have taken some courses and be prepared to earn their certificate.
The results of this initiative have been very helpful, and we can see better delivery of the FOI to Canadians where individuals in Departments have taken these courses. These graduates know why and why not information should be released or held back. It means that our time with them is spent efficiently. It also means that these individuals are empowered, through expertise, to stand up for the law against other Departmental interests. When and if they leave their career path in Access work, they do take this knowledge and training with them and spread it more throughout the governmental system. This programme has been most helpful in spreading the necessary information throughout government but also in making professional the individuals working in the system. In the long term, it probably will be one of the more effective initiatives we have undertaken to obtain support for FOI activities.
Enough from me. I would now like to learn from you about your strategies for changing bureaucratic cultures.