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Monday, October 02, 2006

FOI: some Canadian tips of universal value

In having a closer look at Canada in the context of "Right to Know" day (more of that later) I came across a speech by the Canadian Information Commissioner on "Transparency, the risk of setbacks: the case of Canada" to a recent conference in Mexico.

John Reid, the current Commissioner is approaching the end of an eight year stint as the Federal Information Commissioner. He was a member of Parliament between 1965 and 1984, and held parliamentary and ministerial positions in government.

In other words he has lots of relevant experience in addressing this topic. A couple of excerpts:
"...one reality has been driven home to me over and over again. That is, a strong freedom of information law is essential, but insufficient in itself, to the task of changing an entrenched bureaucratic culture of secrecy. As well, there must be tangible, clear leadership from the elected and non elected heads of government in support of openness".

The infrastructure on which a healthy open government regime rests includes "adequate resources; careful training; professionalism in the creation, retention, use, and disclosure of records; and readiness of senior officials to stay out of disclosure decisions so that the processing of access requests becomes a routine embedded process within government. Weakness in any of these areas will undermine even the strongest of freedom of information laws".

"Do not become complacent just because a freedom of information law is on the books. Passage and adoption of an open government law guarantees nothing. It is but a first step; media vigilance, citizen pressure, academic attention, judicial support - all the forces which achieve the passage of access laws must remain organized, and fiercely determined to push back the inevitable "secrecy creep" that will emerge".
Reid has some other sage advice regarding training and professionalism for access administrators, and says that it should be an offence for a government employee to fail to create records with the intent to deny right of access to information.

The Secretary of the Australian Treasury, Ken Henry, is on record as saying that the prospect that advice documents could be subsequently made available for public scrutiny would be sufficient reason to ensure no records were kept.

Don't look for a job exchange arrangement in Canada Ken, at least while John Reid is in office.

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