Canadian Newspapers Release 8th Annual National Freedom of Information Audit
Last week, Newspapers Canada, a joint initiative of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association, released its 8th annual National Freedom of Information Audit report.
The annual report reviews the performance of Canadian governments and various public institutions with respect to their access to information laws. In particular, it tests how readily officials disclose information that should be publicly available on request.
Hundreds of requests were sent to 11 federal government departments and crown corporations,ministries, departments and agencies in all ten provinces and in the Yukon and to 19 major municipalities across the country.
The 2014 also put a special emphasis on access to open government data:
"(...) the 2014 audit has a special focus on data in light of the move by governments to open data, a growing trend toward making government data available for developers, journalists and others, to build applications and mine information. One hundred and seventy two requests for electronic data were included in the audit, and while some government bodies were prepared to release raw data as requested, others insisted on providing paper printouts of the data, or converting it to PDF or images files. These latter formats defeat the purpose of requesting data because they can’t be read by spreadsheet and data analysis programs and are useless for web development environments without error-prone, often technically difficult conversion. Data released as an image or printed out isn’t data at all."So how did they do?
"The federal government, on its open data site, says, 'The Government of Canada has made open government, including open data activities, a priority in order to increase transparency and accountability, as well as to spur national innovation and economic growth.' Provinces and municipalities have made similar statements. But as noted in the detail section of the report, if open data is to have meaning, data has to be available through the FOI process and not just when governments choose to release datasets that may have been carefully vetted and manicured for public consumption."
Here are a few of the highlights, divided into darts (negative results) and laurels.
- The Privy Council Office, the central agency that serves and advises the Prime Minister, for telling a Newspapers Canada auditor who asked for a copy of data from the agency’s access request processing system that the PCO simply does not release electronic records. Despite being reminded of its obligation under the act to do so, the agency refused to relent and declared that the request would be considered abandoned if the auditor did not accept paper records;
- Transport Canada, for imposing an extension of one year on a request for ministerial briefing notes on the Lac Megantic disaster;
- The Province of Manitoba for claiming it was not “feasible” to provide data from its database of repair and maintenance needs of provincial highway bridges. It said it would have to print out paper copies from the database and black out information manually, rather than remove any exempt information electronically;
- The City of Winnipeg for proposing to charge $27,000 to process a request for a dataset of property standards orders;
- The City of Windsor for refusing a request for names, positions and salary classifications of its employees, saying they constituted information about employment-related matters;
- Edmonton Police for their $8,000 fee to provide a list of how many hours of overtime and how much overtime money was paid to each Edmonton police officer in 2012. Toronto Police for refusing to even process the overtime request unless the auditor submitted the request again, this time with an expensive certified cheque or money order to pay the $5.00 application fee;
- The CBC for blacking out a section on “transparency and accountability” in briefing notes for president Hubert Lacroix on the issue of adding advertising to some CBC Radio Services;
- Several provinces for poor recordkeeping, as they said they would have to go through individual inmate files to find inmate complaints;
- P.E.I. for its claim it would cost $2,200 to release a database of highway collisions.
- Quebec for being the only province that was able to release all prisoner complaints at a named correctional institution;
- Environment Canada, Finance, National Defence and Public Works and Government Services, for being an example to other federal departments and crown corporations in releasing data in useable, electronic form;
- B.C. for taking a similar leadership role among provinces;
- Alberta and Manitoba for being the only two provinces to release briefing notes prepared for their premiers in advance of national premiers meetings;
- Police in Ottawa, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Victoria for bucking the trend among police agencies countrywide, and releasing details of police officer overtime claims;
- The City of Charlottetown and Saskatoon Police for responding to requests for information, even though they are not formally included in access legislation