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6. Getting the message out about transparency and open government
We took the message of the importance of access to information, proactive disclosure and open government to Parliament and to Canadians through numerous activities, including appearances before Parliamentary committees, our new website, and the annual Right to Know week. We also participated in international efforts to promote open government.
The Information Commissioner (in the persons of both the former Commissioner and the current Interim Commissioner) appeared five times before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in 2009-2010. Through these appearances, the commissioners carried out one of the key roles of the position—to support Parliamentarians in their work.
One of the appearances was about possible reforms to the Access to Information Act. We presented 12 recommendations for immediate actions that the government could take to strengthen the legislation. (For more information, see our 2008-2009 annual report.) In its report on the need for legislative change, the committee accepted eight of our recommendations as we presented them. Of the remaining recommendations, they supported three with additional considerations and wished to review implications of the fourth.
The ex-Commissioner also spoke to the committee about our 2008-2009 annual report. The remainder of the appearances were about funding for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. As a result of an appearance in March 2009 and a subsequent presentation to the Advisory Panel on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament and to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, we received additional funding in May 2009 to continue the implementation of our new business model.
In April 2010, the Interim Commissioner appeared before the committee to discuss her special report, Out of Time (see “Shining a light on compliance” for more information on the findings), and to brief committee members on developments in the area of open government.
Our new website
In response to the evolving online needs of Canadians, we created a new website that provides a broader range of functions in an attractive scheme. We launched the website in March 2010 and immediately received positive feedback from our users.
To help Canadians better understand their rights to access to information, our new website hosts a variety of articles, reports, publications and statistics. As an additional resource, users can view a variety of podcasts that discuss access to information topics. These podcasts feature speeches and seminars that provide invaluable insight into the world of access to information on both the national and international levels. We have also set up RSS feeds to disseminate updated website content and will be developing a blog and a Twitter feed as we have the capacity.
In the spirit of promoting both transparency and accountability, the new website provides a much more comprehensive view of the work we do. In the new Reading Room section, users can find information about our consultations and a full range of reports on our current progress and future plans. We are also posting the wording, in English and French, of all the access to information requests we receive. Interested readers may to ask informally for the documents that we released in response to each request.
2009 Right to Know week
Canada’s Right to Know week celebrates the fundamental principles of freedom of information. Every year, Canadians are provided with the chance to come together to discuss these principles and how they contribute to a successful democracy. These discussions help identify our current access to information issues from various perspectives; more importantly, together we can identify and develop ways to solve these issues.
In 2009, we worked with our provincial and territorial counterparts to make Canada’s Right to Know week a truly national event. Together, we also made full use of technology to share the benefits of the week with Canadians across the country. For example, the official website (www.righttoknow.ca) provided links, live podcasts, and transcripts of the presentations given at Right to Know week events.
During the opening Town Hall, renowned advocates and journalists criticized the lengthy delays and the lack of transparency that information seekers often face. Examples in hand, they discussed the resulting implications for the social and economic well-being of Canadians.
During a conference for parliamentarians, participants talked about the efforts made by some Canadian cities to create portals to a vast array of reusable information. Other experts presented various projects and tools to improve the speed, quality and user-friendliness of such proactive disclosure. To this end, Senator Francis Fox recommended that deputy ministers and senior federal officials be assessed according to their institution’s ability to rapidly process requests for access to information. Also in attendance was prominent access expert Stanley Tromp, who discussed how our federal legislation still does not capture the benefits of transparency.
During a panel discussion, legal experts put forth their own suggestions for improving our legislative framework. All kinds of approaches were raised, including direct court action, strengthening the Information Commissioner’s powers, and entrenching the right to know in the Charter.
Lastly, the week also featured international representatives from several influential organizations, who presented their own recent efforts to promote access to information to various countries and international organizations to create favourable conditions for access without borders.
Through our international work in 2009-2010, we sought to develop and share best practices in the area of access to information. These efforts were also an effective way to spread the word about the importance of transparency, and to produce tools for countries to use to implement access to information systems or enhance what they already have in place.
For example, we collaborated with representatives from other Organization of American States member countries to develop a model access to information law and implementation guide for the Western hemisphere. These tools set out a clear and close-to-ideal approach to access to information as a benchmark for all countries to work toward.
In April 2009, we also looked at the right of access to information in the Americas by participating in a conference put on by the Carter Centre in Peru. The conference resulted in an action plan for the hemisphere, backed by broad agreement by participating countries, on how to uphold and, ideally, enhance citizens’ right to information.
Finally, we hosted delegations from Burkina Faso, India and Russia, providing briefings on the access to information system in Canada and learning about the challenges officials in these countries face. This knowledge allows us to provide better support to Parliamentarians.
Collaborating with partners
Collaboration with all our partners in the access to information system—institutions, citizens, our international counterparts, and domestic and international interest groups—enhances our effectiveness. It is also crucial to our efforts to spread the word about the importance of access to information and transparency.
In 2009-2010, for example, we began working with the Canadian Bar Association to plan a seminar on access to be held in 2010. Representatives from this group also spoke to legislative reform in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
We started to plan the international conference of information commissioners, which we will host in Ottawa in 2011. We also met with our provincial and territorial colleagues in person and by teleconference to discuss issues of mutual interest. One concrete and noteworthy action that resulted from those exchanges was the drafting of a joint letter to the World Bank offering observations on its proposal to modernize its disclosure policy.
We will strive to support parliamentarians as they continue to discuss the Access to Information Act and study open government initiatives. To this end, we will continue to conduct national and international benchmarking and to document best practices worldwide through collaborative endeavours and partnerships with national, foreign and international experts and organizations.
Spreading the word
In 2010-2011, we will continue to publish various documents that explain our investigative process and disseminate our findings and recommendations. For example, we will post any new practice directions we develop on our website.
We will continue to develop our new website to give the public access to, among other things, findings of noteworthy investigations, major corporate documents and listings of access to information requests.
Championing the cause
There is a growing movement in favour of greater access to information through proactive disclosure. We will continue to promote our strong support of this practice, and work with other public and private agencies to bring proactive disclosure to a new level across the system.
We will continue to collaborate with partners and counterparts across Canada to promote compliance with legislative requirements, raise awareness of underlying causes of and solutions to systemic issues, and the need for greater proactive disclosure. In addition, we will continue to work with various stakeholders to share information on both the challenges and best practices in access to information, particularly in the context of today’s open government initiatives.