Canada’s info, privacy bodies want open government

Canada’s information and privacy commissioners have become advocates for open government, issuing a joint resolution to support open government ideals and a call for all levels of government across the country to follow their lead.

“Governments at all levels in Canada should embrace open government principles to enhance transparency and accountability,” states the commissioners in a call released at the annual meeting of Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy Commissioners in Whitehorse, Yukon on Wednesday.

The Open Government Resolution, issued by all federal, provincial and territorial commissioners in Canada, outlines basic tenets of a sound open government strategy and lists five points of resolve.

The commissioners “are advocates for open government and promote the paradigm shift from reactive to proactive disclosure, and ultimately to open government,” states the document.

The resolution is the result of the work of all the commissioners across Canada, said Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada. And while commissioners themselves don’t have the power to implement in government, they do have the power to persuade and influence government in these types of matters, she said.

“The resolution is important because we think that governments all across Canada should really take on open government and instill a culture shift in terms of how they deal with people’s information and how they disclose this information on a pro-active basis,” said Legault.

The Information Commissioner’s office is adapting to open government standards with its own information holdings, she said. The initiative, which started this year, aims to proactively disclose the information that stakeholders are most interested in, she said.

And one type of information that people are very interested in is performance statistics, said Legault. “We used to publish them only once a year. We now publish them every month and they are now going to be in a format that is going to be reusable,” she said.

One of the best ways to preserve freedom in a democratic society is to ensure there is openness and transparency in the activities of government, said Ann Cavoukian, information and privacy commissioner of Ontario.

The “twist” to the commissioners’ call, she said, is the paradigm shift. “We are calling for proactive disclosure on the part of the government in terms of entire classes of information,” she said.

Freedom of Information (FOI) laws currently exist in Ontario and other jurisdictions, she said, but they are reactive in nature. “They are predicated on a citizen applying for information, making what’s called an FOI request,” she said.

“What we are trying to do is change it to a push model where the government pushes out information that it has available,” said Cavoukian.

But one of the biggest challenges for governments and organizations is translating the conceptual framework of open government into concrete steps, she said.

Governments seeking guidance on how to implement open government ideals can turn to Access by Design (AbD), a pragmatic model on accessible and accountable government developed by Cavoukian’s office that outlines seven fundamental principals.

Access by Design, referenced in the Ontario privacy commissioner’s last annual report, will be launched formally during Right to Know (RTK) week later this month.

“You want to make the information accessible,” said Cavoukian. Information should be easy to find, indexed properly and supplied in user-friendly formats, she said.

Open government activist David Eaves, who hosted a panel discussion on open data and access to information at last year’s RTK event, said the issue wasn’t even on the radar at the time. “I can’t think of a single person on the spectrum who shouldn’t be excited about this,” he said.

What’s significant about the announcement is that the information and privacy commissioners recognize the importance of digital, he said. Paper-based communication does not suffice anymore for disclosure, he said.

“It is significant because it shows that the bodies that are designed to ensure citizens have access to information now understand that it’s not just having access to the information that matters – it’s how you have access to that information,” said Eaves.

And even “just being digital” isn’t enough, he pointed out. “An image or a PDF that is not searchable is not disclosure, and if they are not saying that, they are definitely moving in that direction,” he said.

Legault’s office hosts RTK, an international event, in Canada every year. Scheduled to run from September 27 to October 1, the week promotes gatherings in cities across the country to raise awareness about open government.

Archivists from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration are among the speakers scheduled to talk this year on open government initiatives they are putting forward in the U.S., such as the de-classification of documents, she said.

The Open GovernmentResolution, available on both the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada’s Web site and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Web site, includes the following recommendations for government:
  • Anchoring principles in laws and policies that provide “clear objectives, assign responsibility and accountability and prescribe specific timeframes.”
  • Building access mechanisms “into the design and implementation stages of all new programs and services.”
  • Conducting “ongoing, broad-based public consultations” to determine what information should become available
  • “Routinely” identifying data sources.
  • “Proactively” disclosing information “in open, accessible and reusable formats.”
  • Providing public access to information “free or at minimal cost.”
  • Implementing policies that give “due consideration to privacy, confidentiality, security, Crown copyright and all relevant laws.”
Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.

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