OTTAWA - Canada's federal and provincial information commissioners are calling on Ottawa to place "integrity" firmly at the heart of their open government strategy to help break down the soaring barriers to information access.
Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada, along with her 12 provincial and territorial counterparts delivered the message to Treasury Board President Tony Clement this week in a detailed letter that lays out a series of recommendations on opening up government.
Clement is the federal Conservative minister behind the so-called Open Government initiative, and he's the Ottawa politician most closely associated with using social media, especially Twitter.
But it is Canada's three-decade-old Access to Information Act — a law many users say has come to embody the exact opposite of its title — that is the focus of a six-page letter to Clement.
The commissioners say it's time to reverse the alarming backslide in access that has led to information actually being released in less than one in five requests filed under the law.
They urge Ottawa to adopt "increasing public integrity" as one of its "grand challenges," and spend more money to clear backlogs.
They also highlight the fact that amendments to the Harper government's signature piece of legislation after winning power, the Federal Accountability Act, "have not fundamentally changed" the access law.
"However, the manner in which government conducts business has changed dramatically," the letter states, without elaboration.
A Treasury Board spokesperson said "Minister Clement will look at the important recommendations of the Information Commissioner and take them very seriously."
Critics accuse the Conservative government of undermining access to information by forcing all requests to be vetted through the Privy Council Office, the prime ministers' bureaucratic arm, which can lead to massive censorship or delays of many months, if not years.
The commissioners' letter cites the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision that recognized the public's right to government-held information as a "quasi-constitutional right."
With the legislation approaching its 30th anniversary, the commissioners recommend that the government commit to increasing public integrity "by reversing the declining trends in compliance" with the law.
"Only slightly more than one half of all access requests made to federal institutions are completed within the thirty day time limit prescribed by the Act. Contrary to the Act's presumption of disclosure, less than one fifth of all requests result in all information being released," the letter states.
"Disclosure continues to become even more limited with respect to information related to international affairs and defence. Currently, 22 per cent of all exemptions invoked on a government-wide basis cite this exemption compared to five per cent in 2001."
The commissioners recommend to government a number steps to increase integrity. They include:
— Devoting "sufficient financial and human resources" and enhancing training for bureaucrats processing the requests.
— Fixing inadequate records management systems.
— Implementing a system to de-classify sensitive records.
"Responding to requests for access to information about international affairs, national security and defence requires the balancing of the public's right to information necessary to hold the government to account with the need to protect records that could injure international relations and national security," the letter says.
The commissioners also cite "best practices" in Mexico and the United States, where on-line "portals" help streamline requests and information across federal and state jurisdictions and various layers of government agencies.
The commissioners also note the unfinished work of the House of Commons committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, which began hearing testimony in 2010-11, but was unable to complete a report.
"This report, if completed, could prove to be a valuable resource in the development of a national action plan."
Clement announced online consultations last month on the government's Open Government plan. The consultation period ended last week.
The government indicated last fall it would join the International Open Government Action Plan at a meeting in Brazil in April.