By Stephanie Schoenhoff and Laura Tribe Last week Newspapers Canada released the results of its latest Freedom of Information (FOI) Audit. Evaluating federal, provincial and territorial, and municipal governments’ responses to access to information requests, the annual audit provides insight into the way that access to information legislation is being implemented and upheld (or ignored) across the country. Each year, the results are clear: the current infrastructure for access to information in Canada is inadequate, and in some areas, laughable. This year’s results were no exception, as the audit focused specifically on acquiring open data sets; a growing request from journalists. Why should Canadians care? The consistently poor performances of access to information systems across the country may seem like an issue limited to journalists trying to research a potential story. However, the inability to access information about how and what our governments are doing impacts everyone. The public depends on media to keep us informed. Although most Canadians may never submit an information request, we all rely on information that is obtained from the government; it is a substantial part of how we hold government accountable, and remain an informed citizenry. In addition to being crucial for transparency and accountability, access to information is a fundamental human right. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, focused on access to information in his 2013 Annual Report, which highlights why the right is integral in the democratic process: “Obstacles to access to information can undermine the enjoyment of both civil and political rights, in addition to economic, social and cultural rights.” La Rue noted that access to information is central to combating and responding to corruption, as core requirements to democracies are practically unattainable without it. Historically, “lack of access to information and, often, the circulation of misinformation, have been central issues for subsequent governments and society as a whole when seeking to address the past and constitute an important challenge in the transitional justice process,” says La Rue. When Canadians do submit access to information requests, the system must be prepared to provide adequate response. Serious issues with this were exemplified during the influx of requests surrounding the Lac-Mégantic train disaster. The crash prompted 200 access to information requests, which were met with serious delays that led federal Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, to say that Canadians “should be concerned” about the current access to information infrastructure that is jeopardizing our rights. Writing for J-Source, Data Journalism Editor and author of this year’s FOI audit, Frank Vallance-Jones notes that “Open data has become one of the buzzwords of governments across Canada.” He argues that the implementation of this right through Canadian legislation has been faulty. Vallance-Jones reports that among the many problems with the current access to information infrastructure is the claim of technical complexity, but also perhaps more restricting is the imposition of high costs to access data, running up to thousands of dollars. “Governments need to accept that if open data is to have meaning, it needs to be for real. It has to be open data, affordable open data, when the public wants it, not just when governments in their munificence decide to release data of their choice,” he says. In the introduction to the FOI Audit, Vallance-Jones said, “I've been doing this study since 2008 and I keep hoping for the day when everyone gets an A and I can call it a day.” He continues, “Sadly, some are getting worse, and particularly troublesome is the worsening performance by the federal government.”
Some highlights from the 2013-14 Freedom of Information Audit:The FOI Audit was conducted by sending over 400 access to information requests. The highlights below have been summarized from the report. Federal government • Received an F for speed of responses and a C for the extent of information disclosed. • Transport Canada added a 340-day time extension on a request regarding the Lac-Mégantic train derailment, effectively adding a year to its processing. • Long delays caused by extensions continue to be a problem. British Columbia • B.C. had the highest disclosure record of all of the provinces, earning a B. • The province improved its speed of disclosure over last year, improving to a D, from a previous F. • B.C. provides itself the longest period of time to disclose documents, giving itself 30 business days to complete requests, in comparison to every other province’s 30 calendar days. Ontario: • Requests in Ontario consistently cost more money than in any other province, hindering the accessibility of information. Alberta: • Alberta received D grades for both speed of responses and extent of disclosure. • The access to information requests submitted to Alberta took an average of 40 days to be processed, 10 days longer than the appropriate processing time. Quebec: • Quebec scored the lowest grades in this year’s FOI audit. • The province received an F for speed of disclosure, and an F for the extent of information it released. Municipalities: • Toronto received an F in the audit both for speed of responses and amount of information disclosed. • Requests made in Vancouver for information on police overtime and property standards were only filed four months or more after the audit ended; Vancouver received an F in speed of responses. • Of the nine requests submitted to the City of Edmonton, only one was released in full as requested. • Nova Scotia produced one of the largest fee estimates in the audit, $4,440.00 to provide a dataset of repair and maintenance requirements for highway structures, such as bridges Read the full 2013-14 Newspapers Canada FOI Audit.
Stephanie Schoenhoff is CJFE’s Research and Communications Assistant, currently completing her degree in Media and the Public Interest at Western University.Laura Tribe is CJFE’s National Programs Coordinator. You can follow her on Twitter @ltribe.
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