The importance of access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic
Appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates
by Caroline Maynard, Information Commissioner of Canada
June 19, 2020
(Check against delivery.)
Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to discuss accountability and access to information.
Canadians have a right to request information from government through access to information requests to federal institutions; this is a quasi-constitutional right.
The right of access and the need for transparency have not been suspended during the pandemic. On the contrary, in this current extraordinary context, transparency and the well-being of the access system are more important than ever.
- Major decisions with huge budgetary implications are being taken everyday.
- New measures and programs related to the economy, public health and safety are being implemented on an almost daily basis.
- Canadians require information about how issues, policies and programs are being managed and developed in order to hold the government accountable.
Given that the Office of the Information Commissioner operates within the federal public service, I am very aware of the operational challenges the pandemic poses to federal institutions. Nevertheless, because transparency is the foundation of trust and because the access system is a pillar of government accountability, Canada’s leaders must take all necessary measures to ensure they are mitigating the impacts of the pandemic on the right of access. This includes ensuring a properly-functioning access to information regime where decisions are being properly documented, information is well-managed, and access requests continue to be processed.
I would like to outline for you just some of the factors that are creating barriers to the functioning of the system during the pandemic:
- Most public servants have been working from home since the middle of March (not always by choice), and many have limited access to the networks and the tools they normally have to do their jobs.
- Providing access to information is not treated as an essential service to Canadians in almost all of the institutions’ business continuity plans.
- In this situation, it can be challenging to manage information, capturing it and storing it in government repositories, especially when access to the network is limited for non-essential staff.
- In many institutions, the transfer of information is outdated. Documents are still being sent by mail, CD-ROM or other mainly paper based processes, which requires access to scanners and photocopiers;
- While some ATIP units are now fully operational, others have suspended operations completely. Most units are positioned somewhere between these two extremes. Such limited operations fundamentally restrict the government’s capacity to respond to access requests and respect their new legislative obligation to proactive disclose some information.
There are other factors at play, but these are the major limitations that cannot be ignored, as they significantly affect transparency and delay, compromise and ultimately erode government’s accountability to Canadians.
Although the pandemic has brought many new challenges it has also created a window of opportunity for bringing essential changes to the operating model of government and the culture that underlies it. I will continue to press the Government for tangible action and results on this front.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that openness and transparency in government has never been more important than it is during this pandemic. The Government needs to commit to proper resources and innovative solutions to ensure the right of access for all Canadians.
Let’s not forget that access delayed is access denied.
Those are my opening remarks.
I will happily respond to any and all questions you may have.