Thursday, April 23, 2015

Stephen Harper and the Illusion of Open Government

As part of its mandate of "openness", the Harper government established an "open data portal" website at  According to a March 31, 2015 speech by John Carmichael, Conservative MP for Don Valley West in Ontario, in 2012 - 2013, the Harper government provided Canadians with nearly six million pages of government information, more than ever before.  In addition, Mr.Carmichael states that the federal government has posted three million pages of archived government records online.

Let's see just how open one part of the Harper government was during 2014.  Since Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, was responsible for unveiling Canada's Open Government Action Plan in April 2012, I will focus on the data for completed Access to Information requests for the Treasury Board of Canada.  Monthly data for completed Access to Information Act (ATIA) requests can be found on the Treasury Board of Canada website for each month since July 2010.  For the purposes of this posting, I am looking at the complete dataset for the period from January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014.  

The government has four main classifications for assessing an ATIA as being complete:

1.) Nothing disclosed (exemption)

2.) Partial disclosure

3.) Full disclosure

4.) No records exist

The "nothing disclosed" because of an exemption is an interesting classification.  Under this exemption, there are two types; class-based and harm-based.  Under class-based exemptions, it is presupposed that the information is inherently sensitive and that injury or prejudice will occur if the information is released.  This includes information that contains personal information (i.e. our income tax information) and information that could result in the release of trade secrets and confidential financial, commercial technical or scientific information of third parties because such information does not actually belong to a third non-government party.  Under the harm-based exemptions, if the head of the government institution deems that there will be some harm, injury or prejudice either to the government or a third party resulting from the release of the data, the data is subject to an exemption. This leaves the playing field wide open since a Minister can easily determine that the release of the data will result in harm to the Harper government.  If you are interested, here is a link to the Department of Justice webpage on the structure of the ATIA exemptions scheme.  

Now, let's look at the ATIA request completions by category for the Treasury Board for all of 2014 as shown on this bar graph:

In total, there were 212 completed ATIA requests in 2014 and just over half were disclosed in part along with one-quarter being disclosed completely.

Here is a pie chart showing the distribution of ATIA requests by level of completion:

As I noted above, you'll note that 51.9 percent of all completed ATIA requests in 2014 fell into the "disclosed in part" category and that only 24.5 percent fell into the "all disclosed" category.  The "disclosed in part" category means that taxpayers have absolutely no idea whether the government has disclosed 1 percent of the information or 99 percent of the information.  That is far from what any logical person would think of as "open government".

Let's look at a partial list of the requests that were "disclosed in part" and the number of pages of data released:

1.) copies of all statistics or other data, by department, indicating: depression, alcohol, anti-depressants, harassment, suicide, fraud, incompetence from 2005 to 2013 - 42 pages.

2.) list of briefing notes and Question Period notes for the month of December 2013 - 2 pages

3.) a copy of all documents showing the USB keys purchased by the Treasury Deparment for each year from 2005 to 2013 - 36 pages

4.) all documents including but not limited to, memos, emails, and reports concerning Senate pensions between September 1, 2013 and November 14, 2013 - 169 pages

And, here's the most ironic of the bunch:

5.) All summary budgetary information on the cost of implementing the Open Government initiative, including IT costs, administrative costs, travel, etcetera, since the start of the initiative - 470 pages

While the Harper government loves to tout the federal government's new culture of openness through the Open Government website, in fact, as we can see from the data in this posting, obfuscation is still the order of the day and it is quite clear that government openness is in the eye of the beholder.


  1. Harper Newspeak

    Is Stephen Harper displaying fascist-like tendencies?

    The 14 Defining Characteristics Of Fascism

  2. Thanks for the link. I found the article on Harper and fascism both fascinating and frightening.