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Appearances before Parliamentary Committees
Address by the Interim Information Commissioner of Canada
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Check Against Delivery
Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to discuss with you the subject of open government. It is a tribute to this Committee that it is studying the topic to determine how open government might best serve Canadians.
As Interim Information Commissioner, I wish to discuss open government, not as an expert in the fields of electronic dissemination of information or information technology. I wish to discuss it as a proponent of the view it is urgent that government make a commitment to greater disclosure of its public information and imperative that it develop a comprehensive open government strategy to support it.
The Committee has often heard testimony regarding the challenges of providing access to information pursuant to the Access to Information Act. How our law now handles accessing information is fundamentally reactive and reflects the traditional modus operandi of the public sector. It is reactive in the sense that access is granted only after someone asks for it.
By contrast, every day we learn about new initiatives that transform reactive disclosure to the proactive mode. Proactive disclosure refers to an environment where information is routinely disseminated electronically, with the exception of that which government must protect because it poses a risk to a public or private interest. It is an environment where information can readily be made available to the public thanks to advances in technology.
Proactive disclosure is an essential component of the broader concept of open government. Open government is predicated on a system in which government records are available to citizens in open standard formats that permit unlimited use and re-use of the information. This facilitates public engagement and participation which, in turn, promotes greater transparency, accountability and trust in government.
Based on our reviews of and discussions with other jurisdictions that are leading the open government movement, successes have been based on sets of well defined principles. To lead the paradigm shift from reactive to proactive disclosure, and ultimately to open government, there must be a “made in Canada” strategy. The strategy must reflect the unique characteristics and informational needs of our society. In this context, I offer five overarching principles for your consideration:
First, there must be commitment at the top to lead a cultural change conducive to open government. At a minimum, this involves issuing a declaration on open government with clear objectives. The commitment also entails assigning responsibility and accountability for coordination, guidance and deliverables. It requires prescribing specific timeframes.
Second, there should be ongoing and broad public consultations. Citizens should be encouraged to participate using electronic means. It is critical to determine what government information the public wants and how they want to receive it.
Third, information should be made accessible in open standard formats and rendered re-usable. Information should be derived from various sources and integrated to reduce the silos inherent in bureaucratic structures.
Fourth, privacy, confidentiality, security, Crown copyright and official languages issues need to be addressed and resolved.
Finally, open government principles should be anchored in statutory and policy instruments.
It is important to stress that, although our legislation emanates from a period prior to the advent of the personal computer, BlackBerry, Google, Facebook and Twitter, its purpose clause is nevertheless consistent with the concept of open government. In section 2, the Access to Information Act states that:
This Act is intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for access to government information and is not intended to limit in any way access to the type of information that is normally available to the general public.
In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized and reinforced the public’s right to government-held information as a quasi-constitutional right. The Justices agreed it is necessary and crucial to the democratic system and enables meaningful participation in a just and free society. Several progressive international freedom of information regimes incorporate the constitutional right to government information as a fundamental principle.
The question is what meaning can we impart to these statements in 2010 given current technologies, the need to achieve public service efficiencies and the public’s expectations of the role of government in leading the transformation to open government? Clearly, there are no legislative impediments to advancing it. The concept is embedded in our information laws. The Access to Information Act anticipated elements of open government in its requirements to describe government programs, services and information holdings in a central register called Info Source and to establish public reading rooms within institutions. The Library and Archives of Canada Act and associated records management policies are based on the premise that sound information management practices enable departments to be more responsive and accountable to Canadians.
In his annual report to the Prime Minister, the Clerk of the Privy Council alluded to the paradigm shift when he acknowledged that the public service faces considerable pressures, such as the globalization of policy issues, the need for more collaborative decision making and the impact of ever changing technologies. Mr. Wouters contended that the capacity of the public service “to rethink the way we work, to plan, to reach out to others for good ideas, and to work together within and across departments will sustain the a high-performing public service.”
As a first step at the institutional level, each government organization needs to identify the opportunities and means to proactively disclose information. As a means of accomplishing this, the former Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia made a recommendation to the Special Committee reviewing the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. He proposed that the Act be amended “to require public bodies to use prescribed access design principles in designing and adopting any information system or program.” If adopted, it would require institutions to build access and dissemination capabilities into new programs and services. This would not only result in more rapid responses to access to information requests, but would lead to direct public access to certain categories of the government’s information holdings and facilitate the shift from reactive to proactive access to information.
At what stage are we in Canada and what lessons can we learn from colleagues in other jurisdictions? In Canada, various open government initiatives of differing scopes are occurring at different levels but without the benefits of central coordination and guidance.
At the federal level, there have been only very modest attempts at proactive disclosure. Almost ten years ago, the government issued a policy requiring all officials above a certain level to post, on-line, the specific details of their travel and hospitality claims. A few years later with the development of more sophisticated systems and programs, the posting of this information, along with other information including provisions in contracts and grants and contributions, is now done reasonably well by government institutions. Unfortunately, in the fast moving information world of 2010, these attempts to open up government information do not represent the wave of the present much less the wave of the future.
However, there are signs of progress. Natural Resources offers free access to databases that once entailed substantial user charges. Its GeoConnections Discovery Portal is a metadata catalogue that enables users and data suppliers to access, evaluate, visualize and publish Canadian geospatial and geoscience data products and Web services. Citizenship and Immigration Canada is now providing public access to many of their massive immigration databases. Their objective is to disseminate the most popular data sets to the public without requiring recourse to the Access to Information Act. National Defence and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency are making their disclosure logs of access to information requests available. My Office is revamping our public website to include access disclosure logs, internal policy documents and research and statistical reports.
Several provincial governments have taken the lead in migrating their programs and services to online portals and rendering them interactive. British Columbia has created a research data warehouse which draws information from multiple government sources, thereby removing data from their traditional silos. Newfoundland and Labrador developed the first Internet based data retrieval system to view and analyze social and economic indicators of well-being.
In November 2009, Quebec’s new regulation, the Règlement sur la diffusion de l’information et sur la protection des renseignements personnels came into effect. It requires fifteen categories of government information to be proactively disclosed to the public by means of the government’s websites. The categories include internal organizational charts, documents of public interest disclosed pursuant to access to information requests, and studies, research and statistical reports of interest to the public. The regulation encompasses a broad range of institutions from provincial ministries to municipalities, school boards and health and social service agencies.
In municipalities, there are a significant number of practical applications being developed by both the cities and citizens. For example, Edmonton, Nanaimo, Toronto and Vancouver, have mounted online data catalogues containing information regarding council meetings, fire and rescue response reports, garbage collection and public transit schedules and building permit statistics. Many of these, such as property searches and restaurant sanitation reports, are supported by online search engines that allow the public to retrieve and manipulate the data. Ottawa is also moving forward to capitalize on new technologies to expand its service offerings.
It is at the grassroots level where many of the most innovative initiatives are occurring. These initiatives are an indication of the types of information Canadians actually want. In a recent Globe and Mail article entitled “if you won’t tell us about our MPs, we’ll do it for you”, David Eaves, an internationally recognized open government guru, described new websites mounted by what he called “digital democratic activists”. He cited, as an example openparliament.ca, which enables the public to see what Members of Parliament say, explore how they vote, and search related press stories. Another example is howdidtheyvote.ca. This site provides a breakdown of Members of Parliament statistics, including the number of words spoken in a session, the frequency with which Members vote against their parties and Members’ attendance records.
There is a great deal to be learned from the experiences of other countries in implementing open government initiatives. During the past year, the United States launched its much anticipated Open Government initiative, the British government made expansive commitments to open government under its Smarter Government umbrella and the Australian government 2.0 Task Force issued a comprehensive draft report. Significantly, the prominent features common to the inception and evolution of these initiatives, notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, is that they are based on strong leadership, broad public consultation and sustained by central repositories of data supported by commonly available tools to access and leverage the data sets.
The American Open Government initiative illustrates the impressive progress that can be achieved when it is being lead by the President. In discussions with our American colleagues, they emphasized the value of leadership and commitment from the top. They referred to clear and unequivocal objectives. The government is opening "doors and data" to all citizens to promote transparency, participation and collaboration. Transparency is critical to provide citizens with information about what their government is doing so that it can, in turn, be held accountable. It encourages journalists, researchers, government officials, and the public to scrutinize and thereby improve how government works on behalf of citizens. Participation is essential in that the government must actively solicit expertise from all sectors so that it makes policies with the benefit of the best information available. Finally, there must be collaboration so that officials work together and with citizens as part of doing their job of solving national problems.
On a practical level, the Open Government initiative requires agencies to publish information online in an open format so that it can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable and made available to the public without restrictions that would hamper re-use of that information. The lead is the White House Office of Management and Budget, in collaboration with Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer.
Our colleagues also stressed the importance of setting firm milestones. The Obama administration established multi-year targets and an associated evaluation process to measure progress. The consultation process, the initial staged release of agency datasets and a progress report to the American people had to be completed by December 2009, only one year following the President’s inauguration.
Leadership from the top also characterizes the British government’s commitments as part of its Smarter Government initiative. It adopted public data principles based on the release of public data sets which would be made available at no charge. The government promises to release more public information, including health, weather and traffic data sets, under open licences that enable re-use, including commercial re-use.
The Australian government 2.0 Task force issued its draft report on how to make government information more accessible and usable. The Task Force's starting premise is that public sector information is a national resource and that releasing as much of it on as permissive terms as possible will maximize its economic and social value and reinforce a healthy democracy. It recommends that public sector information should be free, based on open standards and freely re-usable. Since Australian government data is subject to Crown copyright restrictions similar to those in Canada, the Task Force recommends releasing government data under a “creative commons attribution licence”. This means the government retains copyright but freely licenses the work for re-use with no need for further permissions or compensation. Only attribution is required. The approach provides an efficient means of freeing up government works without the requirement for legislative change.
Canada must move quickly to embrace open government and, in doing so, encourage citizen engagement, especially that of our younger generation. While detractors may claim that rapid adoption of open government poses unacceptable challenges, experience in the “trial and error” approach in the United States has demonstrated that these challenges can be mitigated by a strategy that allows for adjustments and provides multiple channels for feedback.
In my view, the government should advance the transformation to open government as being in the best interests of this country and its people. The transformation can be founded on the principles of strong leadership, public consultations, enhanced accessibility and a commitment to resolve statutory and policy issues. It can build on the fact that Canada is one of the most connected countries in the world.
In 2010, democracy, government efficiency and national prosperity share the same core requirement. Citizens, experts and entrepreneurs must be able to easily access, interact with and reuse current and relevant public domain data. To quote from an excellent report compiled by Deloitte entitled Unlocking Government: How Data Transform Democracy:
Government leaders have before them an opportunity to combine the resourcefulness of online citizens and entrepreneurs with the power of factual data to more effectively achieve their mission. In an information-driven age, the ability of governments to seize this opportunity may ultimately determine whether a government fails or succeeds.
Mr. Chairman, I and my Office would be pleased to assist the Committee in its important task of advancing the open government movement within the scope of our mandate and resources. Again, I very much appreciate the privilege of addressing this subject with you today.