Harper government gets failing grade in freedom-of-information audit

Harper government gets a failing grade in FOI audit
"Once again in 2014, the federal government's performance is among the worst," says an annual freedom-of-information audit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA – A new report on Canada’s freedom-of-information laws slams the federal government for its poor performance in making computer data public, even as the Harper administration touts its ‘Open Data’ policy.

Newspapers Canada directly tested federal, provincial and municipal transparency laws with almost 400 formal requests for information last October and November, the 10th annual audit carried out by the organization.

This year’s version added 172 requests for electronic data sets, requiring the information to be provided in a format that can be digested and manipulated by computer.

Most government bodies fell short, many insisting on providing the data requested on paper, or providing it in the electronic equivalent of a photo – impossible to process in a spreadsheet or database program.

Among the worst performers were some departments of the federal government, which has been promoting its ‘Open Data’ agenda as evidence of transparency, including the proactive posting of some 200,000 data sets online.

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The audit found that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s own department, the Privy Council Office, refused to release any information in electronic format, insisting on paper printouts.

“‘Open data’ is hot and governments all over the world are jumping on,” says the report, prepared by Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax.

“But the promise of open data loses much of its value if only data approved, and carefully vetted, by government officials is available; data must also be available on request under freedom of information laws, in reasonable time frames and at reasonable cost….”

“In Ottawa and in many other government bodies across Canada, the ardour for open data quite often diminishes when officials are faced with an access request for electronic information.”

The audit singled out the Privy Council Office for its “arrogance” in insisting that it does not provide records in electronic format, even though the office held the original information in that form – and Section 6 of the Access to Information Act requires release “in the format requested.”

The office stuck to its guns and never provided a final response to the researchers, who insisted on machine-readable data.

On the other hand, some federal departments – National Defence, Public Works and Aboriginal Affairs – did provide the data sets requested in spreadsheet-compatible formats within a reasonable time.

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The project also measured response times for all requests, whether for data or other information.

Most laws set an initial period of 30 days for release of requested records, though extensions are common. Transport Canada took the prize for longest extension, 340 days for ministerial briefing notes related to the Lac Megantic rail disaster in Quebec – records that are still awaiting release.

“Once again in 2014, the federal government’s performance is among the worst,” says the document.

“Fewer than half of the requests were completed within the statutory 30-day deadline, a slightly worse performance than in recent audits.” Requests took an average of 52 days to be processed, earning the federal government an “F” grade for timeliness.

The report especially criticized the CBC in a section about whether released records were excessively blacked out under the exemptions provided by the laws.

“One of the greater ironies of the audit was the secretiveness of the CBC, whose journalistic arm routinely probes other government agencies for information and makes extensive use of freedom of information laws,” says the audit.

The public broadcaster was asked for information about the possible addition of advertising to CBC Radio, for example, but declined to provide much.

“Briefing notes for CBC president Hubert Lacroix … were almost completely blacked out, including everything in sections labelled ‘transparency and accountability’,” the researchers noted.

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Newspapers Canada, representing daily and community newspapers, says its annual audit is the world’s only regular, national test of freedom-of-information laws, directly checking user experience rather than relying on official government statistics.

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