Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Illusion of Government Openness in Canada

Updated November 20th, 2013

To combat the widely held public perception that they are not particularly open with the public (and the mainstream media for that matter), the Harper government launched Canada'sAction Plan on Open Government back in March 2011 as announced here by Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board:

"The Government of Canada remains committed to fostering the principles of open government by putting forward this Action Plan. It offers Canadians greater opportunities to learn about and participate in government, in the economy, and in our democratic process."

Here's the man nearly live and in person discussing Canada's new "open data future":

There's twenty minutes that you're never going to get back!  In light of the recent Senate scandal and the obfuscation that seems to occur daily during Question Period, I think that the issue of government openness is more critical now than ever before.

To that end, the data.gc.ca website was launched, a public portal that contains a supposed goldmine of government data from 20 departments.  On top of that, in 2012, all government departments are now required to publish summaries of the completed Access to Information (ATI) requests that have been completed.

Since Tony Clement is such a big proponent of "openness", let's look at the completed ATI requests for his Treasury Board and see how many of these requests have been partially disclosed or fully disclosed for the nine months since the beginning of 2013.  For your illumination, here's what you see when you click on the "Completed Access to Information Requests" tab on the left side of the page:

Here is a summary of the number of requests completed by the Treasury Board for the first nine months of 2013:

Keep in mind that these are the completed ATI requests only.  We have absolutely no way of knowing how many total ATI requests there are in a given month, in fact, it is quite possible that the number of outstanding requests far outweighs the number that are completed.

Back to the 2013 data.  Out of the 183 completed ATI requests, only 25.1 percent received a full disclosure from the Treasury Board.  Nearly half of those completed (47 percent) received a partial disclosure.  With the requests receiving a partial response, again, the Canadian public has absolutely no way of knowing how much information is being withheld and what little is being released to the sweaty masses.  Oddly, 22.4 percent of the requests revealed that "no records existed" even for such relatively mundane requests as:

 "All information addressed to and from President Tony Clement, or his office, regarding the choice of the colour ‘blue’ for government Web sites, between January 1, 2006, and September 28, 2011."  

While it is quite possible that no records exist, any verbal communication between Tony Clement and any other member of either the Harper government or the Conservative Party of Canada regarding this matter would never be traceable or recoverable yet it could well have taken place.  We will never know.  The lesson here; don't put anything in writing that you don't want coming back to haunt you when you are in politics!   It’s called “plausible deniability”, a lesson that Mr. Harper appears to have learned very, very well.

While it is interesting to see that there is some lip service being paid towards federal government openness, it is quite apparent that trying to get all of the information out of this government is still an uphill battle.  The government can put as much lipstick as it wants on a pig but it is still a pig no matter what angle you look at it from.  

As we are all finding out, there is entirely too much secrecy in government just for the sake of secrecy and Ottawa is no exception no matter what lip service is paid to the concept of openness.

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