Mediacheck

Harper's Closed Windows

Most federal departments fail to provide transparency, but open data sites offer hope.

By Michael Geist, 20 Apr 2010, TheTyee.ca

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Locked out citizens face long delays.

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Suzanne Legault, Canada's interim information commissioner, and Michael Mulley, a Montreal-based software programmer, may occupy different worlds, but last week both placed an important spotlight on open and transparent government.

Legault is responsible for administering the Access to Information Act, and last week her office warned that inadequate resources and lengthy delays were causing enormous damage to access to information rights in Canada. Legault released a 154-page report that gave below average or failing grades to the majority of the 24 government departments she reviewed.

The implication of a broken access to information system extends to virtually every policy area. For example, Canadian Heritage and Industry Canada typically lead on policies involving broadcasting and new media. While Industry Canada received a solid "B" grade, handling a 93 per cent increase in requests relatively smoothly, the first review for Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore's department yielded an "F" grade.

According to Legault, Canadians looking for information from Canadian Heritage (which could involve issues such as culture spending priorities, the digital television transition, or copyright policymaking) are likely to find their requests delayed by months. The department has a deemed refusal rate of 40.8 per cent (third worst in the government), the product of short staffing and multiple layers of review with senior bureaucrats examining access documents on two occasions before formal release.

A hopeful parallel track

Legault's official open government track may face systemic issues, but Mulley is working to create a parallel, unofficial track to make government information more accessible. Last week, Mulley launched OpenParliament.ca, a marked improvement from the official parliamentary website. The volunteer site captured thousands of pages of transcripts from the House of Commons and made them fully searchable, enabling anyone to easily review what any member of parliament has said on virtually any topic.

Two days later, Datadotgc.ca launched, another open government site that highlights which government ministries share their data in open formats so that the public can make use of it. The results are discouraging, since with the notable exception of the Ministry of Natural Resources, most federal departments do not make their data openly available (127 data sets from Natural Resources, 12 from the rest of the government).

The two sites are part of a growing trend of citizen-backed initiatives that provide Canadians with the tools to learn more about their elected representatives and government policies. Alongside sites like howdtheyvote.ca (which tracks MP voting records) and governmentexpenses.ca (which makes sense of government travel and hospitality expenses), an innovative generation of programmers and digital activists are creating a new form of access to information.

These two tracks of open government -- access to information and open data -- run in parallel, but there is the potential for intersection. As open government advocates call for the release of open data sets, access to information data should be an obvious target.

We want data

For example, the public release of the CAIRS database, which tracks access requests across all government departments, would allow for the creation of a fully searchable online archive of thousands of access to information requests. Such a site would allow Canadians to quickly identify prior requests, thereby reducing taxpayer expenditures on duplicative investigations.

Alternatively, each department could post a list of all requests on its site in an open format. At present, only the Department of National Defence comes close, as it discloses all completed requests and invites the public to ask for a copy at no additional cost.

Given the problems associated with access to information, it may be a tall order to add open government to the mix. Yet as Canadians demonstrate a growing interest in government data, it may be time to place the two issues on the same track.  [Tyee]

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