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NOTEBOOK: Federal government takes a giant step forward on proactive disclosure

Documents obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act.
Documents obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act. Global News

The federal government has quietly begun proactively publishing “Question Period Notes” — records which were once available only through an access-to-information request.

This innovation is a giant step forward so far as proactive disclosure of valuable government information goes. The government could do much more to improve proactive disclosure and to improve the federal Access to Information Act, but this is a big deal.

(See: What Exactly Are Question Period Notes? at the end of this post)

The first batch of these notes was published on Dec 18 via the Open Government portal and that release was pushed out this weekend via the portal’s RSS feed.

These “QP Notes” — also known as “House Cards” — can be an invaluable sources of background information on a host of current topics.

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Journalists, students, academics, and non-governmental organizations, among others, will find this a valuable treasure trove of data that was once only obtained via a time-consuming Access to Information request.

READ MORE: Access to information bill a step backwards, not forward: watchdog

This kind of proactive disclosure builds on two initiatives brought in by the Trudeau government.

First, you can search completed access-to-information requests here. It’s a good first step, but the government could make this a lot more useful. The search function is super-clumsy and frequently produces false positives. Moreover, there’s no RSS feed, so the only way to know when new stuff has been added is to manually visit often (or, if you’re a real geek, write your own web scraper).

If you find a completed request that interests you, you can click on it and up comes an online form to get a copy of those records. It would be nice if there was a way to make multiple requests without having to fill in name, address, phone number — i.e., by logging in using a unique account or something — for each an every request but it is a start. But the ability to make batch requests would be a lot simpler.

Second, the government is publishing monthly lists of the briefing materials provided to each minister. While this list is still subject to the kind of redactions you get through the ATIP process, you can still get a handy list of titles of briefing notes and other material that ended up on a minister’s desk in a given time period. It’s a useful way of getting a sense of what a minister is working on. And, of course, you can always file an ATIP request for any particular document that interests you.

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This is a good innovation but it, too, could be improved.

For example, there is no uniform format. Here is the most recent list for the Minister of Indigenous Services for the month of April 2019, the most recent month for which data is published. It’s a handy CSV format which makes it easy to sort and search in a spreadsheet.

But here’s the list for the Veterans Affairs Minister and deputy minister. It’s in both PDF and CSV format, but it’s not a monthly list. In fact, it’s a list stretching from April 2019 back to May 2017.

READ MORE: Liberal government postpones initial Access to Information reforms

And now there’s QP Notes.

This first set of QP notes has great information on topics as varied as soybean exports to China to the Sixties Scoop to civil unrest in Hong Kong.

These QP notes cover the the last sitting day of the House of Commons in June and the sitting days in December. There are responses prepared for 683 questions.

Not every department is covered here but there are plenty, including::

  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
  • Canada Revenue Agency
  • Global Affairs Canada
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • National Defence
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada
  • Employment and Social Development Canada
  • Health Canada
  • Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada
  • Infrastructure Canada
  • Department of Justice Canada
  • Natural Resources Canada
  • Canadian Heritage
  • Privy Council Office
  • Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Public Safety Canada
  • Public Services and Procurement Canada
  • Shared Services Canada
  • Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
  • Veterans Affairs Canada
  • Veterans Review and Appeal Board
  • Department for Women and Gender Equality
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What exactly are Question Period Notes?

Every day when the House of Commons sits, ministers arrive with thick green binders filled with answers to questions that they might get asked that day. These Question Period Notes — also known as “House Cards” — are prepared each morning by bureaucrats as they try to anticipate what their minister might get asked by the opposition. (I’m told they are subsequently tweaked by the minister’s political staff and tweaks by political aides are shielded from the proactive disclosure/access-to-information system.)

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Of course, some ministers never get asked any questions in Question Period and yet, some bureaucrat has gone ahead and prepared a bunch of talking points and background material for questions that were never asked.

For the working journalist or research, though, these QP Notes/House Cards are a great source of background information on any number of topics and very often yield a decent bit news on their own.

Here’s a good example of how my routine monthly requests for “House Cards” — in this case, aimed at getting Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s cards — produced what we call in the business an “enterprise” story:

Canada’s Armed Forces, struggling to hit diversity goals, turns to new digital recruiting tools

David Akin is Chief Political Correspondent for Global News