Thursday, September 28, 2006

Right to Know Week - Post #100

As OffalNews reaches the milestone of post #100, this week marks International Right To Know Week.

I'll merely point out that this provincial government press release marks and explains the occasion and leave all the multiple layers of irony of that fact to others. Other excellent internet sources include a site for the Freedom of Information Advocates Network and the leading Freedom of Information & Open Government Blog.

This is an issue particularly close to my heart because I've always suspected that the government reflex, on both the political and bureaucratic level, to withhold information from the public and media had more to do with controlling levels of embarrassment than disrupting effective government operations through unduly revealing the sensitive information government needs to make decisions.

I have yet to be proven wrong.

I held a minor role in the provincial government when the legislation and concepts of the current provisions of the access to information act were being developed and I recall the many explanatory briefings before and during the roll-out period.

The principle was simple: with very few exceptions, all information was deemed to be open to release to anybody who asked, no questions asked, outside of narrow exceptions which had to be justified to the person making the request and, ultimately, to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Overall the default position was to release information, not to hold it back.

But it didn't take very long before these lofty goals were highjacked by self-serving bureaucrats and politicians.

Now I don't want to paint all politicians and bureaucrats with the same brush. I have known plenty of both who had no problem disclosing all the information they had to. Many generally wanted to, and would have, disclosed more if they could in the interests of the public's right to know. And contrary to popular thought in the public and media, it is not the political class who obstruct most freedom of information requests; it's the officials.

I've been told of incidents where senior communications officials in government, those entrusted and ethically bound to full and complete disclosure of information as part of their professional responsibilities, have obstructed freedom of information requests on the flimsiest grounds.

In one case, a very senior communications bureaucrat, with smug and proud self-satisfaction, refused to release a file requested by a reporter when she knew that it was the exact material the reporter was asking for. Why? Because the request was not phrased using the *exact* and *precise* description of the file.

Of course how would the reporter know the exact and precise description of the file without ever seeing it? This was in contravention of the spirit and intent of the legislation and arguably in contravention of a few letters of it too.

In another case a media outlet recently requested another file of information. From the media reports that followed, I strongly suspect that important parts of the files were held back from that reporter simply to avoid embarrassment to officials who deserved to be embarrassed.

Again, I suspect the reporter has no idea that he's been snookered.

I remember speculation by officials and politicians that if written materials would be subject to discloser then that would merely lead to more oral briefings as a way of disclosure avoidance. I note with some sad horror that the local media reports that this has come to pass.

The Telegram, to their credit, has vigorously pursued this issue and well they should.

When the House of Assembly closed on Friday, December 17, 2004, government was proud of implementing their "Accountability Agenda" and CBC reported that:

A revised Freedom of Information Act was passed, with career civil servant Phil Wall appointed as information commissioner. "The system is going to change," Byrne says. "And while we may not or any government may not want to issue or give information, we've put in place a systemic approach by where information will be readily available to the general public, to groups and organizations who may wish to have it, that was not there before. So we feel very strongly that we've changed the current system."
They certainly did.

Whatever fine work this government may or may not have done, there is no doubt in my mind that this government is obsessively secretive to an absurd fault and that they have reinterpreted the provisions of the Access to Information legislation in a way that clamps down a lid on information disclosure.

In areas like this, government is lead from the top. When the top dog in the province, the Premier, gets into long and protracted battled over information disclosure issues it sets the standard for everyone else in government. They too will drag their heels and obstruct.

Strangely, it's not enough to just talk about openness, transparency and disclosure; you have to put your money where your mouth is.

In celebration of Right to Know week, OffalNews has turned it's mind to a project: to make an access to information request to a provincial government department and to track the progress. I know local media outlets do that all the time but I have something special in mind.

Stay tuned.

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