Reviewing Access to Information Legislation

Just got informed – via the CivicAccess mailing list – that Canada’s Access to Information Commissioner is planning to review Canada’s Access to Information legislation (full story here at the Vancouver Sun).

This is great news. Canada has long trumpeted its Access to Information Legislation as world leading. This was true… in 1985. It was plausible in 1995. Today, it is anything but true. The process is slow, frequently requests are denied and requests had to be paid for by check. Indeed, if a document you are looking for might be held by the US government, it is well known among Canadian journalists that you are better to ask the Americans for it. Even though you are a foreign they are both much faster and much more likely, to provide it. It is, frankly, embarrassing.

So we are no longer global leaders. Which is why I think it is great the commissioner might look abroad for best practices. The article suggests she will look at Britain, the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia.

These are all fine choices. But if I had my pick, I’d add Brazil to the mix. It’s new transparency law is exceedingly interesting and aggressive in its approach. Greg Michener – a Canadian who lives in Brazil – covered the new law in Brazil’s Open Government Shock Therapy for TechPresident (where I’m an editor). The disclosure requirements in Brazil set a bar that, in some ways, is much higher than in Canada.

There are also some Eastern European countries that have had very progressive transparency laws – in reaction to both previously authoritarian regimes and to corruption problems – that make them worth examining. In other words, I’d love to see a mix that included more countries that have altered their laws more recently. This is probably where we are going to find some of the newer, more exciting innovations.

Regardless of what countries are looked at though – I’m glad the commissioner is doing this and wish her good luck.

3 thoughts on “Reviewing Access to Information Legislation

  1. Andrew Ecclestone

    It is good news, although it’s stretching things to say that even by 1995 it was plausible to claim that the federal ATIA was ‘world leading’.  The following year, the then Commissioner described the law in his annual report as “toothless”, and in commenting on UK FOI proposals in 1997 said that they “left Canada trailing in the dust”.

    What’s important when reviewing FOI/ATI laws is not just to compare statutes against each other, but to see what other factors in the legal framework, and – most importantly – in the culture of officialdom, lead to the best outcomes.  If you were to read the New Zealand law (enacted the year before the Canadian Federal ATI), you’d think on the face of it that it was pretty conservative and unlikely to result in much openness.  In fact, the carefully constructed law, in conjunction with 3 year Parliaments (which means that both main parties have had plenty of opportunity to both love and loathe the Act depending on whether they are in opposition or government) and other public sector reforms, has led to a situation where New Zealand officialdom discloses documents that in other countries would be regarded as unthinkable.  Publication of Cabinet papers and minutes is *routine*.

    So, look at the drafting of the laws, but also look at other contributing factors, and most importantly start with the outcomes you want to achieve and work backwards to determine what is necessary to achieve them.


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