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Tuesday, 27 September 2016 06:32
Note: I was invited by Canada’s Information Commissioner and the Schools of Journalism and Communication, and Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University to participate in a workshop to launch Right to Know Week 2016. This was a full afternoon workshop featuring many interesting speakers and discussions. This blog post is based on my remarks at this event.
For the last 5 years or so, governments at all levels across Canada have been embracing the open government agenda. In doing so, they have expressed, in various ways, new commitments to open data, to the proactive disclosure of government information, and to new forms of citizen engagement. Given that the core goals of the open government movement are to increase government transparency and accountability in the broader public interest, these developments are positive ones.
There is a risk, however, that public commitments to open government have become a bit of a ‘feel good’ thing for governments. After all, what government doesn’t want to publicly commit to being open, transparent and accountable? As a result, it is important to look behind the rhetoric and to examine the nature of the commitments made to open government in Canada and to question how meaningful and enduring they really are.
For the most part, commitments to open government in Canada have been manifested in declarations, policy documents, and directives. These documents express government policy and provide direction to government actors and institutions. Yet they are “soft law” at best. They are not enacted through a process of legislative debate, they are not expressed in laws that would have to be formally repealed or amended in order to be altered, there are no enforcement or compliance mechanisms, and they remain subject to change at the whim of the government in power. Directives and policies, of course, can provide rapid and responsive mechanisms for operationalizing changes in government direction, and so I am not criticizing decisions to set open government in motion through these various means. But I am suggesting that a longer term commitment to open government might require some of these measures to be expressed in and supported by legislation in order to become properly entrenched.
For example, much effort has been invested by the federal government in creating an open licence to facilitate reuse of government data and information. After a slow and sometimes painful process, we now have a pretty good open government licence. It is based on the UK OGL and is very user friendly compared to earlier iterations. It is bilingual and it can be customized to be used by governments at all levels in Canada (for example, a version of this licence was just adopted by city of Ottawa). This reduces the burden on provincial and municipal governments contemplating open government and it creates the potential for greater legal interoperability (when users combine data or information from a number of different governments in Canada).
But let us not forget why we need an open government licence in Canada. An open licence permits the public to make use of works that are protected by copyright without the need to ask permission or pay royalties, and with the fewest restrictions on re-use as possible. Government works in Canada – and this includes court decisions, statutes, Hansard, government reports, studies, to name just a few – are protected by copyright under section 12 of the Copyright Act. One might well ask why, instead of toiling for years to come up with the current open licence, the government has not shown its commitment to openness by abolishing Crown copyright. It’s not as radical as it might sound. In the U.S., s. 105 of the Copyright Act expressly denies protection to works of the U.S. government without any obvious negative consequences. In the U.S., these works are automatically in the public domain. This legislated, hard law solution makes the commitment real and relatively permanent. Yet as things stand in Canada, government works are protected by copyright by default, and governments choose which works to make available under the open licence and which they wish to provide under more onerous licence terms. They can also decide at some point to tear up the open licence and go back to the way things used to be. Crown copyright in its current incarnation sets the default at ‘closed’.
It is true that some aspects of open government are already part of our legislative framework. We have had freedom of information/access to information laws for decades now in Canada, and these laws enshrine the principle of the public’s right to access information in the hands of government. However, the access to information laws that we have are ‘first generation’ when it comes to open government. The federal Act is currently being reviewed by Parliament, and we might see some legislative change, though how much and how significant remains to be seen. As Mary Francoli has pointed out, there wasn’t really a need for further review – the new government had plenty of material on which to take action in proposing amendments to the Act.
The many deficiencies in the Access to Information Acthave been well documented. For example, in 2015 the Information Commissioner set out 85 proposed reforms to the statute to modernize and improve it. The June 2016 Report by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on its Review of the Access to Information Act takes up many of these proposals in its own recommendations for extensive reforms to the Act. We are now awaiting the government’s response to this report. Rather than review the many recommendations already made, I will highlight those that relate to my broader point about enshrining open government principles in legislation
The Access to Information Act as it currently stands is premised on a model of individuals asking for information from government, waiting patiently while government puts together the requested information, and then complaining to the Commissioner when too much information is redacted or withheld. Open government promises both information and data proactively, in reusable formats, and without significant restrictions on reuse. While proactive disclosure of information and open data cannot replace the access to information model (which is, itself, capable of considerable improvement), they will provide quicker, cheaper and more effective access in many areas. Yet the Access to Information Act does not currently contain any statement about proactive disclosure. Proactive disclosure – also referred to as “open by default” is not really “open by default” unless the law says it is. Until then, it is just an aspirational statement and not a legal requirement. We see a proliferation of policies and directives at all levels of government that talk about proactive disclosure, but there are not firm legal commitments to this practice, or to open data. And, although I have been focussing predominantly on the federal regime, these issues are relevant across all levels of government in Canada.
A core principle of open data is that the data sets provided by governments should be made available in open, accessible and reusable formats. Proactive disclosure of information should also be in reusable formats. Access under the conventional regime is also enhanced when the information disclosed is in formats that facilitate analysis and reuse. Yet even under the existing access model, there is no default requirement to provide requested information in open, accessible and reusable formats. It is important to remember that it is not enough just to provide ‘access’ – the nature and quality of the access provided is relevant. The format in which information is provided in a digital age can create a barrier to the processing or analysis of information once accessed.
I would like, also, to venture onto territory that is not addressed in the calls for reform to access to information laws. Another challenge that I see for open data (and open information) in Canada relates to the sources of government data. I am concerned about the lack of controls over the use of taxpayer dollars to create closed data. As we move into the big data era, governments will be increasingly tempted to source their data for decision-making from private sector suppliers rather than to generate it in-house. We are seeing this already; an example is found in recent decisions of some municipal governments to source data about urban cycling patterns from cycling app companies. There will also be instances where governments contract with the private sector to install sensors to collect data, or to process it, and then pay licence fees for access to the resulting proprietary data in the hands of the private sector companies. In these cases, the terms of the license agreements may limit public access to the data or may place significant restrictions on its reuse. This is a big issue. All the talk about open government data will not do much good if the data on which the government relies is not characterized as “government data”. It is important that governments develop transparent policies around contracts for the collection, supply or processing of data that ensure that our rights as members of the public to access and reuse this data – paid for with our tax dollars – are preserved. Even better, it might be worth seeing some principle to this effect enshrined in the law.
Published in Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography
Tuesday, 09 February 2016 10:19
Carleton University’s Mary Francoli has just released her second report on Canada’s progress towards its Open Government commitments as part of its membership in the Open Government Partnership. The report is currently open for public comment.
The report offers a detailed and thorough assessment of the commitments made by the Canadian government in its second Action Plan on Open Government and the extent to which these commitments have been met. For those interested in open government, it makes interesting reading, and it also sets out a number of recommendations for moving the open government agenda forward in Canada.
Because the report is a review of Canada’s progress on meeting its commitments, it is shaped by those commitments rather than by, for example, a list of open government priorities as identified by multiple stakeholders. Indeed, problems with stakeholder consultation and engagement are themes that run through this report. Although Francoli notes that there have been improvements over time, there is clearly still work to be done in this regard.
Francoli’s detailed review shows that progress has certainly been made in moving forward the open government agenda. She notes that “significant progress” has been made with respect to many of the government’s commitments in the second Action Plan, and that in some cases the government’s progress has exceed its commitments. Not surprisingly, however, much remains to be done. Francoli identifies a number of shortcomings flagged by stakeholders that form the basis for her recommendations.
Foremost among the shortcomings is the woeful state of Canada’s Access to Information Act. Although this legislation has been the subject of criticism and calls for reform for decades – and by a broad range of stakeholders – the previous government remained impervious to these demands. That an open government agenda could be advanced with much fanfare without tackling access to information in any substantive way should undermine confidence in Canada’s commitment to open government. Top among Francoli’s recommendations, therefore, is reform of the legislation, and she has written a separate opinion piece on this topic in the Hill Times. In this article she notes with frustration that although the new Liberal government expressed a commitment to reform the access to information regime in its election platform, that commitment is now being expressed in terms of a “review” of the legislation. Francoli justifiably questions whether we really need further review given the many studies already conducted and the ink already spilled about the deficiencies in the legislation. A commitment to meaningful reform might just require swifter action.
Other issues flagged by Francoli include what she refers to as a “data deficit” – the apparent stalling of progress in the release of open data and the lack of diversity in the available data at the federal level. The concerns over a data deficit extend to the cancellation of government-led data collection; the axing of the long-form census being perhaps the most notorious (though not the only) example of this. Although the census has been revived, Francoli notes that other cancelled studies have not. Further, Francoli cautions that the government’s web renewal strategy is having the effect of pushing departments and agencies to reduce digital content available over the web, with the resultant loss of content available to the public. This latter concern ties in as well to Francoli’s recommendation that the government develop and publicize a clear policy on the preservation of digital material.
In addition to recommendations related to these issues, Francoli also recommends that the government overhaul the Advisory Panel on Open Government. This Panel (on which I served) met only very rarely, and opportunities to provide feedback became very limited by tight time constraints imposed on the few meetings that did take place. Francoli is concerned about a disjunction between stakeholders’ perspectives on open government and those of the government, and she sees an Advisory Panel with a new mandate and a new mode of operation as being one way to ensure more open lines of communication.
There may be a common misperception that open data and proactive disclosure are inexpensive and resource-light endeavors (after all, the government is just publishing online information already gathered, right?). Yet, this is far from the case. Open data in particular is resource-intensive, and Francoli notes that the two Action Plans had identified no additional resources for open government (apart from the $3 million dollars set aside for the mysterious Open Data Exchange (ODX)). She therefore also recommends that the government commit the necessary resources to open government in future action plans.
Francoli’s report can be found here, and comments on the report can be made here. The comments are public, and it is also possible to read comments by other stakeholders and to engage in dialogue about the report. With a new government in the process of setting its open government agenda, this is an opportunity to help shape its direction.
Published in Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 10:45
A recent decision of the Federal Court of Canada has overturned settled expectations around fees for access to information at the federal level. The case arose after the Information Commissioner of Canada asked the Federal Court to rule on the longstanding practice of federal agencies and departments to charge fees relating to the disclosure of electronic records. For those not familiar with the federal scheme, there is a small application fee for an access to information request of $5.00. This doesn’t sound like much (although advocates argue that there should be no fee at all). However, the application fee is far from the whole story. Regulations passed under the Access to Information Act allow agencies and departments to charge additional fees for the costs of reproducing materials in various formats, for producing records in alternative formats, and fees for search and preparation. The search and preparation fee can be charged to offset the costs of searching and preparing records that are “non-computerized”. According to the regulations, the first 5 hours of search and preparation are free; after that the regulations provide for a fee of $2.50 per person per quarter hour for time spent preparing “non-computerized” records. For records produced from “a machine readable record”, there are no search and preparation fees. Instead, requesters can be charged $16.50 per minute for the cost of the processor and other devices used in the retrieval, and $5 per person per quarter hour for any time required to programme a computer to search for the information that is sought. Essentially, then, there are (potentially very high) search and preparation fees for non-computerized records and no search and preparation fees for “machine-readable” records.
At the heart of this case was the issue of what constituted a “non-computerized” record. The long-standing practice (supported by the previous Information Commissioner) was to treat records electronic formats such as MS Word, for example, as “non-computerized records” which would be subject to the search and preparation fees. The category of “machine-readable” records was reserved for records which did not exist at the time of the request, but that had to be created, for example by searching a database for relevant responses to a query.
The particular case at the heart of this reference was a request made by an individual for 3 sets of records from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that included the table diagram for a database, system user manuals and guides for the database system, and the developer’s “Changelog” document relating to that database. All documents existed in electronic format. HDRSC informed the applicant that it would charge search and preparation fees of $4,180 for access to these documents. The applicant complained to the Commissioner about the estimate of 423 hours of search and preparation time which lay behind the fee, essentially seeking a reduction of the estimate. The Commissioner instead took the position that the search and preparation fees were not permitted by the regulations since the documents were “machine-readable records”.
It seems rather extraordinary to argue, as the Attorney General did in this case, that electronic records were not “machine-readable records”, but were instead “non-computerized records” within the meaning of the regulations. Justice Harrington acknowledged the bizarreness of the position, quoting the famous exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty (from Alice in Wonderland) as to the meaning of words. Humpty Dumpty’s conclusion, of course, is that what a word means will depend on who has the ultimate control. In this case, it was Justice Harrington who had the final say – and he ruled that documents in electronic format were “machine-readable records” and thus not subject to search and preparation fees. He concluded that “Whether stored in an internal hard drive, external hard drive or the now obsolete punch cards and floppy disks, such records are machine readable and therefore computerized.” (at para 54) The decision is a game changer, particularly in a context where so many government records are in some electronic format or another.
Of course, the decision must be situated in its particular context. Justice Harrington noted that the Access to Information Regulations are sorely out of date. This is no surprise – the entire regime is as out-of-date as a Compaq computer. The Information Commissioner only recently issued a report to Parliament calling for a massive overhaul of the Access to Information Act (see my post on this report here). The interpretation problems and the gap into which this case fell are most likely due to regulations that were drafted with the technology of the time in mind. Yet, as Justice Harrington notes, “Legislation is promulgated to the public. . . The language cannot be so obscure that one must glean through hundreds of statutes and thousands of regulations in order to arrive at its true meaning.” (at para 55) Although he expressed some sympathy for the many government agencies and departments that lack the funds to properly deal with access to information requests, he observed that “it is Parliament that placed these government institutions under the Act. If they are underfunded, they should not be looking to the courts for redress” (at para 62). Fees can be a real barrier to meaningful access to information in the hands of government, and although this case centres on the interpretation of the regulations, the bigger picture is of an Act and Regulations that are out of date and inconsistent with the federal government’s professed embrace of open government.
It remains to be seen what the upshot of this decision will be. While it is a victory of sorts for the Information Commissioner and for those Canadians who seek access to information in the hands of the federal government, it is a victory that turns on the wording of regulations and not on some broad principle of open access. The government could simply change the regulations to impose new fees – and perhaps even to raise existing fees that have not been touched since 1986. Of course, to do so without also tackling the myriad problems with the regime so clearly laid out in the Commissioner’s recent report would be to display a profound lack of commitment to meaningful access to information and open government.
Published in Privacy
Wednesday, 01 April 2015 07:28
Canada’s Access to Information Act is outdated and inadequate – and has been that way for a long time. Information Commissioners over the years have called for its amendment and reform, but generally with little success. The current Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault has seized the opportunity of Canada’s very public embrace of Open Government to table in Parliament a comprehensive series of recommendations for the modernization of the legislation.
The lengthy and well-documented report makes a total of 85 recommendations. This will only seem like a lot to those unfamiliar with the decrepit statute. Taken as a whole, the recommendations would transform the legislation into a modern statute based on international best practices and adapted both to the information age and to the global movement for greater government transparency and accountability.
The recommendations are grouped according to 8 broad themes. The first relates to extending the coverage of the Act to certain institutions and entities that are not currently subject to the legislation. These include the Prime Minister’s Office, offices of Ministers, the bodies that support Parliament (including the Board of Internal Economy, the Library of Parliament, and the Senate Ethics Commissioner), and the bodies that support the operations of the courts (including the Registry of the Supreme Court, the Courts Administration Service and the Canadian Judicial Council). A second category of recommendations relates to the need to bolster the right of access itself. Noting that the use of some technologies, such as instant messaging, may lead to the disappearance of any records of how and why certain decisions are made, the Commissioner recommends instituting a legal duty to document. She also recommends adding a duty to report any unauthorized loss or destruction of information. Under the current legislation, there are nationality-based restrictions on who may request access to information in the hands of the Canadian government. This doesn’t mean that non-Canadians cannot get access – they currently simply have to do it through a Canadian-based agent. Commissioner Legault sensibly recommends that the restrictions be removed. She also recommends the removal of all fees related to access requests.
The format in which information is released has also been a sore point for many of those requesting information. In a digital age, receiving information in reusable digital formats means that it can be quickly searched, analyzed, processed and reused. This can be important, for example, if a large volume of data is sought in order to analyze and discuss it, and perhaps even to convert it into tables, graphs, maps or other visual aids in order to inform a broader public. The Commissioner recommends that institutions be required to provide information to those requesting it “in an open, reusable, and accessible format by default”. Derogation from this rule would only be in exceptional circumstances.
Persistent and significant delays in the release of requested information have also plagued the system at the federal level, with some considering these delays to be a form of deliberate obstruction. The Report includes 10 recommendations to address timeliness. The Commissioner has also set out 32 recommendations designed to maximize disclosure, largely by reworking the current spider’s web of exclusions and exemptions. The goal in some cases is to replace outright exclusions with more discretionary exemptions; in other cases, it is to replace exemptions scattered across other statutes with those in the statute and under the oversight of the Information Commissioner. In some cases, the Commissioner recommends reworking current exemptions so as to maximize disclosure.
Oversight has also been a recurring problem at the federal level. Currently, the Commissioner operates on an ombuds model – she can review complaints regarding refusals to grant access, in adequate responses, lack of timeliness, excessive fees, and so on. However, she can only make recommendations, and has no order-making powers. She recommends that Canada move to an order-making model, giving the Information Commissioner expanded powers to oversee compliance with the legal obligations set out in the legislation. She also recommends new audit powers for the Commissioner, as well as requirements that government institutions consult on proposed legislation that might affect access to information, and submit access to information impact assessments where changes to programs or activities might affect access to information. In addition, Commissioner Legault recommends that the Commissioner be given the authority to carry out education activities aimed at the public and to conduct or fund research.
Along with the order-making powers, the Commissioner is also seeking more significant consequences for failures to comply with the legislation. Penalties would attach to obstruction of access requests, the destruction, altering or falsification of records, failures to document decision-making processes, and failures to report on unauthorized loss or destruction of information.
In keeping with the government’s professed commitments to Open Government, the report includes a number of recommendations in support of a move towards proactive disclosure. The goal of proactive disclosure is to have government departments and institutions automatically release information that is clearly of public interest without waiting for an access to information request that they do so. Although the Action Plan on Open Government 2014-2016 sets goals for proactive disclosure, the Commissioner is recommending that the legislation be amended to include concrete obligations.
The Commissioner is, of course, not alone in calling for reform to the Access to Information Act. A private member’s bill introduced in 2014 by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also proposes reforms to the legislation, although these are by no means as comprehensive as what is found in Commissioner Legault’s report.
In 2012 Canada joined the Open Government Partnership, and committed itself to an Action Plan on Open Government. This Action Plan contains commitments grouped under three headings: Open Information, Open Data and Open Dialogue. Yet its commitments to improving access to information are focussed on streamlining processes (for example, by making it possible to file and pay for access requests online, creating a virtual library, and making it easier to search for government information online.) The most recent version of the Action Plan similarly contains no commitments to reform the legislation. This unwillingness to tackle the major and substantive issues facing access to information in Canada is a serious impediment to realizing an open government agenda. A systemic reform of the Access to Information Act, such as that proposed by the Information Commissioner, is required.
Published in Privacy
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